With one Supreme Court seat up for grabs, Pa.’s 2021 judicial elections start to take shape

(Image via The Pittsburgh Current/Adobe Stock)

Two incumbent state appellate court judges won their parties’ endorsement this week to fill an open spot on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The state Republican Party endorsed Judge Kevin Brobson for the role. Brobson currently serves on the Commonwealth Court, which mostly handles appeals on lawsuits against state and local governments and their agencies.

A Widener University Law graduate, Brobson has served on the Commonwealth Court since 2009. Before sitting on the statewide bench, he practiced law at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, a Pennsylvania-based law and lobbying firm.

Democrats, meanwhile, endorsed Judge Maria McLaughlin for the Supreme Court. McLaughlin, also a Widener University Law graduate, has served on the state Superior Court, which handles appeals of most criminal and civil cases, since 2017.

She also served as a Philadelphia Family Court judge and as a prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office.

The seat is open because Chief Justice Thomas Saylor must retire by the end of this year when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75. 

His retirement won’t impact the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court. Saylor was first elected as a Republican, while justices elected as Democrats hold a 5-2 majority on the seven-member court.

With Saylor’s retirement, the role of chief justice will fall to the next most senior jurist, Justice Max Baer of Allegheny County.

While Brobson and McLaughlin earned party endorsements, they aren’t the only candidates voters will see on their primary ballot for the high court. At least two other judges appear to be seeking a nod, according to evaluation requests filed with the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

Also running on the Democratic side is Judge Carolyn Nichols. A colleague of McLaughlin on the Superior Court, Nichols was also elected to the statewide bench in 2017. Before her current role, the Temple Law graduate was elected to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in 2011.

The second candidate for Republicans is Judge Paula Patrick. She has been a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge since 2003. This the Texas Southern University law graduate’s fourth run for statewide judicial office.

The political role of Pennsylvania’s high court has been in the spotlight in recent years. From a 2018 ruling tossing the state’s congressional maps as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander to backing Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic to extending the deadline for mail-in ballots for the 2020 election due to postal delays, the state’s high court has handed down far reaching rulings recently.

Party endorsements can carry extra weight in these low-information races for highly influential positions. Judicial candidates up and down the ballot have stricter ethics standards then municipal. legislative and gubernatorial candidates. These rules limit state jurist hopefuls fundraising as well as what they can say publicly.

To judge potential jurists, voters can also turn to ratings from the state bar association, to pick judicial candidates. These rating attempt to look at a judicial candidates’ experience and background to score their readiness to serve on the bench.

All four Supreme Court candidates are highly recommended by the state bar association, the top rating they give to judicial candidates.

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

But neither the party endorsement or the bar ratings are final. Voters will have a final say on the nominations in the May 18 primary. 

You must be a registered Democrat or Republican to vote for a judicial nominee. But all registered voters will be eligible to vote on a constitutional amendment limiting gubernatorial emergency powers that will also be on the 

Voters will also be called on to fill one opening on the Superior Court, and two openings on the Commonwealth Court due to retirements, according to Department of State records.

For those openings. Republicans endorsed McKean County attorney Stacy Wallace and Judge Drew Crompton, a former top Senate GOP aide appointed to the bench last year, for the Commonwealth Court openings. The party also endorsed Megan Sullivan for Superior Court.

Democrats only endorsed one candidate for the lower appeals openings — Judge David Spurgeon, a former prosecutor and current Allegheny County Common Pleas judge, for Commonwealth Court. 

At least three other Democrats are seeking the two open nominations for Commonwealth Court. Another four Democrats are seeking the single nomination for Superior Court.

Two judges on both Commonwealth and Superior Court will also stand for retention — Judges Anne Covey and Renee Cohn Jubelirer on the former, and Judges John Bender and Mary Janes Bowes on the latter. They will not appear on the ballot until November, along with the winners of the May primary.

If approved by voters, they will remain on their respective courts for another ten years, or until they reach retirement age. 

These retention elections are usually quiet affairs. Voters have rejected a judge standing for retention just once in the 200-plus year history of state judicial elections, at the height of the 2005 pay raise scandal.

The names on the primary ballot for these races will not be finalized until March. You can read the Pennsylvania bar’s recommendations for all judicial candidates who submitted materials here.