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Democrats Look To Control Pa. State Supreme Court After Heavy Fundraising

by Peter Jackson

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Democrats looked Tuesday to take control of the state's highest court after dominating fundraising in a race for three open seats that drew nearly $11.5 million in campaign contributions, a record for the state.

It was the first time three seats were open in an election for the state Supreme Court. Three Democrats, three Republicans and one independent were on the ballot.

If the Democrats win all three seats, they would lock in a majority on the seven-member court for at least a decade. Justice Debra Todd, a Democrat, is all but guaranteed a second 10-year term in 2017, when she'll stand unopposed in a yes-or-no vote on whether to retain her through 2027. That would give the Democrats an opportunity to shape the legislative redistricting following the 2020 census.

Republicans have controlled the court for six years and have a 3-2 advantage with an interim justice filling one open seat until a new justice is seated in January.

But organized labor and Philadelphia trial lawyers helped the Democrats raise three times as much money as the Republicans in this year's election.

The Democratic nominees were Superior Court judges David Wecht and Christine Donohue, both of Allegheny County, and Philadelphia Judge Kevin Dougherty. The Republicans were Superior Court Judge Judy Olson, also of Allegheny County, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey, of Bucks County, and Adams County Judge Mike George. Philadelphia Judge Paul Panepinto ran as an independent.

Two other appellate court races were also on the ballot statewide.

Philadelphia Judge Alice Beck Dubow, a Democrat, was competing against Republican Emil Giordano, a Northampton County judge, for Superior Court, the general appellate court that handles criminal and most civil appeals from the county courts.

Two Pittsburgh lawyers, Republican Paul Lalley and Democrat Michael Wojcik, were vying for a seat on the Commonwealth Court, which decides civil cases filed by or against the state government and appeals from county courts in cases involving state or local agencies.

On the high court, two seats opened because of the resignations of disgraced former justices: in 2013, a Republican convicted of using her taxpayer-paid staff to do political work and, in 2014, a Democrat implicated in a pornographic emails scandal. The other seat became open when former Chief Justice Ronald Castille was forced to step down last year after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.

The turmoil on the high court has not let up. Republican Justice J. Michael Eakin is also the subject of an inquiry by the state Judicial Conduct Board. He was found to have been involved in the exchange of emails deemed offensive. He apologized for "insensitive" personal emails but said they didn't reflect his character or affect court business.

At a polling station in the Harrisburg suburb of Susquehanna Township, most voters interviewed indicated they did not know much about the candidates.

Earl Sweigard, 81, said he was motived by his views on gun control and taxes to vote the straight party line ticket for Republicans.

Democrats including Jeff McGaw, 53, said they voted the straight party ticket for Democrats because of their disgust at the GOP's increasingly conservative tone.

Many voters also said they were uncomfortable with the increasingly large political donations going into the campaign treasuries of the judicial candidates.

Supreme Court justices are elected to 10-year terms. After that, they face retention votes.


Associated Press writer Marc Levy contributed to this report.

(© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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