In 2017, 3 Pa. Supreme Court races cost nearly $3m – they were among the nation’s costliest | Friday Morning Coffee

December 13, 2019 7:24 am

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg (Capital-Star file)

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

If there’s one political truism, it’s that elections cost money. And big elections cost big money. And the elections for Pennsylvania’s statewide and county benches are no exception. All told, 18 states, including Pennsylvania, elect judges in partisan elections, according to Ballotpedia.

As we’ve noted before, that system requires judges to go out and campaign and fundraise just like every other political candidate. But because judges are barred from speaking their minds on most issues (because they might eventually be called to rule on them), that means the average voter has little to no idea who these candidates are or what they stand for. And that, in turn, means that high-powered interests are able to infiltrate these races and spend huge sums of money to get judges elected. And that’s bad for democracy generally.

Now, thanks to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice, we have a clearer idea of the money that’s at play in judicial elections, not only in Pennsylvania, but nationwide. The data below is based on 2017-18 fundraising.

(Source: The Brennan Center for Justice)

All told, voters across the country cast their ballots for 66 seats on their respective supreme courts.

That’s equivalent to one of every five supreme court seats across the country, according to the Brennan Center’s analysis. That tally includes 20 retention elections, in which sitting judges were uncontested and voters decided whether they deserved to continue to serve, according to the Brennan Center’s analysis.

In 2017, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Sallie Mundywho was originally elected as a Republican, defeated Allegheny County Judge Dwayne Woodruff, a Democrat, in a contested, partisan election. Mundy had been appointed to the court in 2016 and was running for a full, 10-year term, according to Ballotpedia.

Meanwhile, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, elected as a Republican, and Justice Debra Todd, elected as a Democrat, both stood for retention and won.

(Patrick Feller/Flickr)

All told, candidates and those trying to influence judicial contests spent $39.7 million in races in 21 states, the Brennan Center’s analysis found.

Here’s how that broke down:

  • “$28.3 million in contributions to judicial candidates (including public financing)
  • $522,000 in spending by political parties (not including any contributions by parties to candidates or groups)
  • $10.8 million in spending by special interest groups (not including any contributions by interest groups to candidates or parties).
  • Twelve justices were elected in million-dollar races during the 2017–18 cycle, which accounted for 75 percent of all spending,” the Brennan Center found.

If there’s an upside, it’s that the “$39.7 million price tag was smaller than three of the four most recent midterm cycles, which saw an average of $45 million in spending. Likewise, the 12 justices elected in million-dollar elections was the fewest since 2006; there were 17 in the previous midterm cycle,” the Brennan Center’s analysis found.

At least two factors were driving this: The number of uncontested races and spending in the 2018 mid-terms, when the focus was on Congress and governors’ mansions across the country. Pennsylvania, which elects its judges in odd-numbered years, was not part of this phenomenon.

“At the same time, some states did see spending for the record books,” the Brennan Center’s analysis found. “Arkansas had the most expensive election in its history, at $3.4 million for a single seat on the supreme court. Wisconsin’s 2018 election attracted $5.3 million in spending, nearly matching the record-holding 2011 election (In 2019, Wisconsin broke the 2011 record with an $8 million contest.).”

Our Stuff.
You may have noticed that the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency has been making national headlines of late for all the wrong reasons, Elizabeth Hardison leads our coverage this morning, explaining what this obscure agency does, and why it’s become the target of scrutiny in the Legislature.

On the 7th anniversary of Sandy Hook, Associate Editor Cassie Miller brings you the sights and sounds of a gun violence-reduction rally at the state Capitol on Thursday evening.

With the U.S. House hurtling toward an impeachment vote, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th Districtexplains why he’s a “yes” vote.

U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, broke with the GOP to vote with House Dems to approve a landmark prescription drug pricing billWashington Reporter Allison Stevens has the story.

From our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune: In its last voting session of the decade, City Council approved dramatic changes to the city’s tax abatement program, ushering in a new era for the city’s development community.

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th Districtteed off on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a testy House hearing, Washington Bureau Chief Robin Bravender reports.

On our Commentary Page, former AARP-PA advocacy director Ray Landis says Pa. isn’t ready for the Gray Tidal Wave that’s heading our way. And with so much on the line for Black people, the Trib’s John N. Mitchell wonders why the Philly Urban League honored a company (Spoiler: Comcastthat has taken a wrecking ball to diversity and inclusion.

The Inquirer
 takes readers to a small-town weed farm that insiders say ‘stinks like 20 skunks’ and is driving neighbors away.
U.S. Steel will spend $8.5 million to settle a class action suit at its Clairton works, the Post-Gazette reports.
The Pa. State Police seized ‘skill games’ from several Pennsylvania barsPennLive reports.
Charter school parents in Bethlehem have sent a letter to the school district demanding that its superintendent apologize for racial remarks he made, the Morning Call reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

Philly’s single-use plastic ban is ‘finally happening,’ WHYY-FM reports.
They’re blaming human error and sensitive touchscreens for election night headaches in Northampton County, the PA Post reports.
third Democrat has jumped into the 2020 primary to challenge GOP U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-16th District, in 2020, PoliticsPA reports.
The House Judiciary Committee will vote today on articles of impeachment, after a very long Thursday, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
The House Democratic Policy Committee meets at 10 a.m. in the Upper Providence Township building, Montgomery County, to hold a public hearing on residential stormwater management.

Gov. Tom Wolf
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Pa. Insurance Commissioner Jessica Altman head to Pittsburgh for a 10:30 a.m. event at the East Liberty Family Health Care Center to remind people to enroll in Affordable Care Act coverage. The open enrollment period ends on Dec. 15.

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
Helping you plan your Saturday, Rep. Valerie Gaydos holds an 11 a.m. tailgate party, while Rep. Stephen Kinsey rings in another trip around the sun with a 7 p.m. reception. Hit both events, and give at the max, and you’re out a mere $2,000 this weekend.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s an old fave from Sugar to get your weekend started off … well … loud: From 1992’s “Copper Blue” LP, it’s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.”

Friday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
The ‘Canes 
dropped a 1-0 decision to the Canucks on Thursday night. Carolina outshot Vancouver 43-28 over three periods. But an extraordinary 43 saves by Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom preserved the game.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.