2021 judicial candidates for Pa. appellate courts make their pitches to voters

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s influence on the state was particularly clear in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election

By: - September 21, 2021 6:30 am

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

*This story was updated at 2:07 p.m. 9/21/21 to correctly reflect Stacy Wallace’s residence.

Pennsylvania voters got an hour-long look Monday night at eight candidates competing to influence state legal precedent for decades.

The candidates — four Democrats and four Republicans — are competing to fill four open seats in statewide elections. If elected, they will serve a ten-year term.

There is one open seat for the Supreme Court, two on the Commonwealth Court, and one on the Superior Court.

Lawsuits against the state and its agencies, as well as appeals in suits against local governments, are argued first in Commonwealth Court. The court is also often the first stop in election disputes.

The Superior Court, meanwhile, handles appeals in most other civil and criminal disputes in Pennsylvania. Among their notable rulings is tossing Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill’s drug conviction.

The Supreme Court then has the final say on either of the courts’ rulings, and has made a number of high profile and influential rulings in recent years. That includes throwing out the state’s 2011 congressional maps as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, as well as overturning comedian Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction.

Their influence on the state was particularly clear in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election. The high court repeatedly upheld Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency powers and ruled to extend the state’s mail-in ballot deadline amid widespread postal delays.

Those rulings won’t be slowing down in the near future either. The state Supreme Court is poised to decide on challenges to public school funding, and could make or break Wolf’s school mask mandate or the Senate’s election subpoenas in the coming months.

Facing off for the one opening on the high court bench are Democrat Maria McLaughlin, who currently serves on the Superior Court, and Republican Kevin Brobson, currently the president judge of Commonwealth Court.

McLaughlin, a former Philadelphia Common Pleas judge, said her experience as a single mother made her a relatable fighter for everyday people on the high court. She added that she wanted the high court to be more transparent about its staffing to fight perceptions of bias.

Brobson, a Lycoming County native, said his time at a Harrisburg regulatory and government affairs law firm gave him experience holding government accountable, which he would continue to do as judge.

Four candidates are running for two open spots on Commonwealth Court: Democrats David Spurgeon, of Allegheny County, and Lori Dumas, of Philadelphia, and Republicans Drew Crompton, of Cumberland County, and Stacy Wallace, of McKean County.

Spurgeon, a former assistant district attorney and current Common Pleas judge, touted his “highly recommended” rating from the state bar association, the only candidate of the court to receive the highest ranking from the non-partisan group.

The Pa. Bar Association carefully creates judicial candidate ratings. But do they actually serve voters?

Dumas, who has been a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge since 2002, added that she would be a people’s judge, and focus on staying accountable to those who elected her.

“We are not accountable to political parties, we are not accountable to big businesses,” Dumas said.

Crompton, who was appointed to the court bench in 2019 and is now running for a full term, was formerly a top staffer for Senate Republicans. He acknowledged he came from a “partisan atmosphere,” but said he had focused on building a fair and balanced judicial temperament.

Once elected in a partisan race, Crompton said, judges must “walk out of politics and over to the judicial monastery.”

Wallace, a small business owner and attorney, said she would respect the boundaries of the three branches of government as a judge, and focus on bringing moral character to the bench.

She is the only candidate of the eight not recommended by the bar association.

Competing for Superior Court are Republican Megan Sullivan of Chester County and Democrat Timika Lane of Philadelphia.

Sullivan, a former assistant district attorney and assistant attorney general, said she had the needed experience as a prosecutor to look for mistakes in criminal cases on the court.

“We’re the people who look at the instant reply, we are there to call very close calls,” Sullivan said.

Lane, who’s served as a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge since 2013, argued instead that as the only candidate in her race with judicial experience, she was right for the job.

Election Day is November 2. The last day to register to vote is October 18. You can check to see if you are registered 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.