Commentary

The Nov. 2 Pa. Supreme Court election feels more like an auction. That’s bad for justice | Opinion

Spending on the race for the state’s highest court already has topped $5M, and more money will still flood in

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

By Kadida Kenner

On Tuesday, Nov. 2, Pennsylvania voters will head to the polls to choose a new state Supreme Court justice. As one of only a handful of states that elects all of our state judges, the stakes are high in the Commonwealth.

It’s supposed to be an election — but unfortunately, it feels more like an auction.

According to a recent report, spending on the 2021 Pennsylvania Supreme Court race has now topped $5 million, as political parties, special interest groups and a billionaire Wall Street trader have written big checks to boost the two candidates, Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin, the Democratic nominee,  and Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson, the Republican nominee.

When it’s all said and done, the campaigns could drop another $1 million in the final days leading up to Election Day.

And what is that flood of money paying for, exactly? For one thing, the Brobson campaign is using his war chest to run ads that are so nasty and misleading that the state Bar Association is calling for them to be pulled down.

The 2021 Supreme Court election isn’t even the most expensive in our state’s history. In 2015 total spending on that year’s Supreme Court races exceeded $21.4 million, setting an all-time national record. Some of that spending came through secretive, “dark money” groups that hide or obscure their donors.

Voters could be forgiven for wanting to tune out the whole spectacle, but that misses the point — the Pennsylvania Supreme Court holds a lot of power in our state government.

The justices help ensure our legislative district maps are fair, our reproductive rights are protected, and our freedom to vote is secure. They decide on cases involving the water we drink, the air we breathe, our electric bills, whether our sacred votes should be counted, and so much more. State courts have a huge impact on our daily lives.

Deep-pocketed donors pour money into Pa. Supreme Court race

After all, if judicial elections weren’t important, we wouldn’t be seeing the obscene sums of money spent to influence them. So it’s essential that Pennsylvanians educate themselves about what’s on the ballot — including judicial races — and turn out to vote.

But Pennsylvania voters shouldn’t be satisfied with the system we have in place. When billionaires and special interest groups can give unlimited sums to back judicial candidates, it raises legitimate questions about judicial independence.

When someone like Jeffrey Yass writes a million-dollar check to try to put his chosen candidate on the court, he isn’t doing it out of the kindness of his heart. He’s hoping to elect a court that will rule in favor of taking public dollars and giving them away to private schools that are unaccountable to taxpayers.

When the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry chips in six figures for television ads, they aren’t doing it for kicks. They’re trying to influence the makeup of the court and elect justices they believe will take their side.

We need to get partisan politics out of our courts. We need to stop extremist state legislators that want to interfere with the courts by creating gerrymandered judicial districts, or worse, attempt to impeach our justices for proper and Constitutional rulings.

Finally, we need to get big money and dark money out of judicial elections in Pennsylvania. Otherwise, they’re little more than auctions to the highest bidder. Courts matter – they’re the place that we the people go for justice.

Kadida Kenner is the executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project, a statewide voting rights organization, and the co-chair of Why Courts Matter – Pennsylvania, an advocacy campaign seeking to protect the independence of our courts and educate the electorate about their importance. She writes from Chester County.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.