May 20 2015
Even before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court primary on Tuesday, May 19, 2015, fundraising totals for the 12 candidates for three open seats has soared into the millions—nearly $5 million raised according to the latest campaign finance reports from the Pennsylvania Department of State, with $2.3 million already spent. A recent article in the Legal Intelligencer notes that by May 2007 in that year’s Supreme Court election, with seven candidates vying for two seats, $2.2 million had been raised, less than the total already spent in this year’s race. While the comparison is not perfect, double the money is in play in this year’s election and the stakes are enormous with more than 40% of the seven-seat court up for grabs. As of the time of the latest campaign finance report, more had been raised for the Supreme Court election than for the Philadelphia Mayor’s race (not including, of course, any independent expenditures).
Television ad spending has also blossomed in the Supreme Court primaries to the tune of $2.4 million as of May 15, 2015, according to Federal Communications Commissions records analyzed by Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake. The funds that make this possible typically originate from constituencies with specific business before the court, including lawyers, law firms, and special interests. The Legal Intelligencer found in analyzing this year’s Supreme Court contributions that the most substantial donations, “… have come from lawyers, unions, and lawyer-funded political action committees.” These groups then have tremendous influence in the primary, where voter education about the candidates is often low and may be informed by a brief TV ad.
What this shows is booming political action surrounding judicial elections and the need for judicial candidates, expected to be fair and impartial arbiters of the law, to act as fundraisers. This feeds public perceptions of mistrust in the judiciary as candidates are seen as beholden to the interests that fund their campaigns. A recent report on Al Jazeera America delves into the issue, including analysis of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court election and candidates’ need to seek funds and endorsements from groups that may come before the court. This mistrust has been further exacerbated by judicial scandals reaching the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, resulting in two of the current court vacancies.
To restore public trust in the judiciary, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court specifically, a different approach from partisan elections is required. While not perfect, merit selection offers the best hope for a judiciary that Pennsylvanians will see as impartial, fair, and removed from campaign funds. Merit selection would replace partisan elections for Pennsylvania’s appellate judges with a hybrid appointive and elective system dedicated to identifying and advancing highly qualified candidates to the bench, without the inherent problems of partisan judicial elections.
An amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution addressing merit selection is expected to be introduced in the near future.