Three vacancies on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — two of which were created when justices left the court in scandal 1— led to a hard-fought election in 2015, which set a new national record for state supreme court election spending. The contest also exemplified key trends in judicial elections today: Big spending by business interests, labor unions, and plaintiffs’ lawyers — all groups that are regularly involved in cases before the court; millions of dollars in attack ads; and extensive spending funded by anonymous donors.

Prior to the three vacancies, Pennsylvania’s seven-member supreme court had been controlled by Republicans. The court was left evenly split in the lead-up to the 2015 election, giving voters the opportunity to determine the ideological balance of the state’s high court, potentially for years. Raising the contest’s already high stakes was its potential to impact Pennsylvania’s redistricting process after the 2020 Census. In Pennsylvania, the state supreme court appoints a fifth member to the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which includes two GOP and two Democratic representatives, if the other members cannot agree on a person.

“Failed to Protect,” paid for by the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative. Copyright 2015, Kantar Media/CMAG.

A TV ad war that included attacks on candidates as soft on crime marked the Pennsylvania election, as did calls to “restore ethics to the bench” in light of the state’s recent scandals. Ultimately, the candidates who spent the most won the election, and voters delivered Democrats a 5-2 court majority.

Sweeping the open seats were Democrats Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty, and David Wecht, who collectively outspent Republican rivals Anne Covey, Michael George and Judith Olson by $11,400,601 to $2,694,809. Independent candidate Paul Panepinto spent $150,202.

The election also featured major, though lopsided, independent spending by two opposing interest groups. Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform spent $4.1 million supporting Democrats, while the Republican State Leadership Committee’s (RSLC) Judicial Fairness Initiative, supported Republicans with $1.5 million in spending. Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform received substantial funding from labor unions and plaintiffs’ trial lawyers, as well as dark money groups. The Judicial Fairness Initiative was funded entirely by the RSLC, whose donors include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which does not disclose its donors) and major corporations.

In all, the election made history. Total spending reached $21.4 million, easily shattering the previous national record set in Illinois in 2004. 2 The three winning candidates were the highest fundraisers in the nation during the 2015-16 cycle, and were also among the top ten overall spenders (including outside groups and political parties), with Dougherty first ($5,650,148), Wecht fourth ($3,642,568), and Donohue sixth ($2,107,886).

Notes:

  1. Republican Joan Orie Melvin was suspended in 2012 and convicted the following year for misuse of state funds; then Democrat Seamus McCaffery resigned in 2014 over his role in an e-mail scandal; and later that year Republican Ronald D. Castille stepped down after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.
  2. Inflation-adjusted, the prior national record for spending in a state supreme court election was Illinois’ 2004 election for a single seat on the high court, where total spending was $19.7 million.