What you need to know about Pa.’s 2021 statewide judicial races

By: - April 27, 2021 6:30 am

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

Registered Democrats and Republicans across the commonwealth will have to pick their candidates to run for four open seats on all three of the state’s appellate courts.

If elected, these judges will serve a 10-year term before they’ll stand for a yes or no retention vote.

We’ll dive into the specifics of the courts — and the candidates — below.

But one quick thing — under state law, judicial candidates can’t say much about policy or politics when they’re running, leaving voters with little information outside of endorsements from interest groups or elected officials. 

One of the few tidbits from an unbiased party comes from the state bar association, which reviews candidates’ legal qualifications to serve and releases a rating. They rate candidates as either highly recommended, recommended, or not recommended.

We wrote more about that process, and its potential pitfalls, here. And you can read their findings yourself here.

And a last reminder: If you want to vote for any of these candidates, make sure you are a registered Republican or Democrat. You can check your registration here, and change it here

(Still confused? We have you covered.)

If you aren’t a registered partisan, and don’t want to change your registration, you can still vote on the four ballot initiatives put to voters on May 18. More on those here.

Your ballot may also include candidates for the General Assembly if you live in one of four House or Senate districts. You do not need to be a registered Republican or Democrat to vote in those races, either.

Supreme Court

The seven-member Supreme Court is the highest court in the state, owning the final say on state constitutional matters and lawsuits against public and private entities in the commonwealth. It also oversees the county court systems through the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. 

The court has flexed its power in recent years, ruling on such high-profile issues as voting laws, congressional maps and Gov. Tom Wolf’s executive powers

But the justices also routinely make lower profile but still important rulings on such issues as local paid sick leave laws or the legal status of gig workers.

Justices elected as Democrats control the court 5-2 right now, but the retirement of Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, elected as a Republican, means the party could add to their advantage come November.

A single Democrat is vying for that seat, Maria McLaughlin. Currently a judge on the state Superior Court, where she’s served since 2017, McLaughlin is formerly a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge. She is endorsed by the state party, and is highly recommended by the state bar.

Republicans, meanwhile, have three candidates from which to choose.

Kevin Brobson is the Republican candidate endorsed by the state party. A former Harrisburg attorney, he’s served on the state’s Commonwealth Court since 2009. He’s highly recommended by the state bar, and was endorsed by Gun Owners of America, the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, and the State Troopers Association, along with a number of business groups.

Paula Patrick has served as a Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge since 2003. A former Democrat, she switched over to the Repubican Party in 2009. She is highly recommended by the state bar, highly recommended by Firearm Owners Against Crime, and endorsed by the Pro-Life Federation.

Patricia McCullough also is a member of the state’s Commonwealth Court, serving since 2009. The bar has not rated her run, and she does not appear to have any campaign presence online with additional information about her candidacy.

You can find video interviews and forums with all of these candidates on Pennsylvania Cable Network’s website here.

Extra reading: 

Meet the candidates: Race for Pa. Supreme Court kicks off with virtual forum — WHYY-FM, March 17, 2021

Pa. Supreme Court Candidates Discuss Qualifications at Virtual Forum — The Legal Intelligencer, March 18, 2021

Husband of high court candidate begins prison sentence — Associated Press, April 6, 2021

2020′s election keeps coming up in 2021′s high court raceAssociated Press, April 16, 2021

Widening fight over guns features prominently in court race Associated Press, April 24, 2021

Mastriano, Pa. Supreme Court candidate slated to appear at QAnon conference — Pennsylvania Capital-Star, April 28, 2021

Commonwealth Court

The nine members of the Commonwealth Court have the first crack at all lawsuits challenging the state and municipal governments and regulatory agencies in Pennsylvania. Election disputes will also appear first in this court.

This is the court, for example, that has put a halt on Marsy’s Law, the victims’ rights amendment passed in 2019. Its judges also have a say on everything from voter ID laws to Wolf’s emergency orders before the Supreme Court — though the Supremes will still get the final say. 

Judges on both the Commonwealth Court and the similar Superior Court (more on them later) are often considered the “farm team” for future spots on the Supreme Court.

Two positions on the bench are open. 

Democrats will face the tough choice in this race, with four candidates facing off for the two spots.

David Spurgeon, an Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge since 2016, is highly recommended by the state bar and has been endorsed by the state Democratic Party. He also has the backing of a number of labor unions, such as the state AFL-CIO, the state firefighters’ association, and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

Lori Dumas is a Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge who has served on the bench since 2003. She is recommended by the state bar, and has the endorsement of the Working Families Party, many Philadelphia unions including the city’s powerful buildings trade council, and state Rep. Rick Krajewski, D-Philadelphia.

Sierra Street is also a Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge who has served since 2013. A former public defender, Street is also the ex-wife of state Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia. She is recommended by the state bar, and her endorsements include the Philadelphia Democratic Party committee, state Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, and Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym.

Finally, Amanda Green-Hawkins is a former Allegheny County Councilwoman and an attorney for the United Steelworkers. She is recommended by the state bar association and her endorsements include the state AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers, the Allegheny-Fayette Labor Council, and former Democratic state Sen. Jim Ferlo.

With two seats open, Republican voters have two options, both endorsed by the state party. 

J. Andrew Crompton joined the Commonwealth Court in early 2020 through an appointment, and is now running for a full term on the court. The former chief counsel for Pennsylvania Senate Republicans, Crompton is recommended by the state bar. A campaign website for his run could not be located.

Stacy Wallace, a McKean County attorney and former law clerk, is not recommended by the bar. 

You can find video interviews and forums with these candidates as they occur on Pennsylvania Cable Networks’ website here.

Extra reading:

Judicial candidates Brobson, Wallace campaign in CambriaJohnstown Tribune-Democrat, April 9, 2021

Superior Court

The 15-member Superior Court is the appeals court for all other private and criminal disputes in Pennsylvania. 

As such, it is usually asked to rule on low profile cases, though it sometimes makes news. It’s the Superior Court that threw out rapper Meek Mill’s criminal conviction in 2019, rejected an appeal by Bill Cosby in his rape case last year, and opened a hole in the state’s sex offender registry.

But, as with Commonwealth Court, any decision by the Superior Court could be overruled by the Supreme Court. And similarly, judges who win a seat on the Superior Court bench may attempt a run for the highest bench in the future.

There is one opening on the court. Democrats will have to pick between three candidates for the spot. All are recommended by the state bar.

Jill Beck is a Pittsburgh attorney. She is endorsed by a number of politicians from western and northeastern Pennsylvania — including Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny — as well as the United Mine Workers of America, United Steelworkers, and the Teamsters, among other organizations.

Timika Lane has been a Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge since 2013, and is a former public defender. She is endorsed by a host of unions and public officials, including the state AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, the Working Families Party, and House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.

Bryan Neft is a former president of Allegheny County Bar Association. He has been endorsed by state Rep. Anita Kulik, D-Allegheny.

Republicans’ ballots will include just one candidate — Megan Sullivan, a former assistant attorney general. She is endorsed by the state Republican Party and recommended by the bar.

You can find video interviews and forums with all of these candidates on Pennsylvania Cable Network’s website here.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.