Democratic Supreme Court Candidates Attend Forum
So began the Democratic Supreme Court Candidate Forum at Chatham University on Sunday afternoon. Each candidates traveled from across the state to meet with Democratic Party leaders and voters on a wet and snowy campus.
The forum, sponsored by the 14th Ward Democratic Committee, Shadyside Dems, 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club, and Steel City Stonewall Democrats, was a lively affair filled with interesting discussion and plenty of Democratic talking points.
The candidates included Pennsylvania Superior Court Judges Christine Donohue, Anne Lazarus, and David Wecht, Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Dwayne Woodruff, Philadelphia County Common Pleas Court Judge Kevin Dougherty, and Jefferson County Common Pleas Court Judge John Foradora.
The forum began with Democratic leaders speaking about the forum’s purpose in bringing recognition to judicial candidates. Leaders also spoke about the necessity of bringing integrity and ethics back to the court after being tarnished recently. Soon, however, it was time for the candidates to begin.
The moderators, Phil Klein and Krysia Kubiak Villa-Roger, professor at Duquesne University and Assistant General Counsel at Duquesne Light, respectively, described the format for the forum. Candidates would give either a one-minute response or a brief yes or no answer for lightning round questions.
Candidates quickly discovered the time limit would be followed to a T, with several candidates running out of time before finishing their introductions. The common theme, however, and a theme throughout the afternoon was trust and honor. Donohue spoke of how she could make a “positive impact” while Lazarus promised to “bring honor and integrity back to the court.” Furthermore, Lazarus said, “Ethics matter.”
Wecht mentioned that although the Supreme Court is going through a period of crisis, this coming election is also a time of opportunity to reclaim the court. Dougherty spoke of his history of implementing progressive change and accomplishing great feats.
The candidates made it a point to emphasize work ethic. Foradora held up a lunch pail and spoke of how he was raised by a working-class family, saying, “I’m someone you can trust.”
Woodruff, a member of the 1980 championship-winning Steelers, said, “I’ll do a great job for you.” He likes to be known as a hard worker and promised to continue his hard work if elected.
The first question of the afternoon dealt with the integrity of the court. In response, several of the candidates mentioned their history with family court. Foradora and Wecht emphasized the need to bring collegiality to the court. Foradora spoke of how a case cannot be properly discussed if the judges simply do not get along.
Wecht also said it is important to ban the giving of gifts to judges, outlawing gift-giving in a manner similar to Governor Wolf’s elimination of gifts in the executive branch.
Donohue served on the Judicial Conduct Board and emphasized her experience in dealing with integrity. She wants better steps to be taken in order to secure the integrity of the court.
Both Foradora and Dougherty spoke about their relationships and goodwill with colleagues. Foradora emphasized his history of working in a predominantly Republican county. Yet he was retained with 84% of the vote and reappointed by Governor Corbett.
The next topic, gerrymandering, elicited a strong response from both the crowd and candidates. Perhaps the issue that best showed the candidates’ partisanship, gerrymandering was deemed an “abomination” by Judge Wecht.
Lazarus promised that if the courts could again get a hold of redistricting with a Democratic majority, the “Democrats will be in charge in 2020 if we redraw the maps.”
Foradora spoke about how gerrymandering has became a much more powerful tool than ever before with the ability to use technology to draw maps. Foradora and Donohue argued that gerrymandering disenfranchises the people. Woodruff made a similar point, saying, “We want every party to be represented equally.”
With the recent events in Paris, the issue of inflammatory speech was next on the table. In an almost unanimous response, all candidates agreed that banning any type of speech is a slippery slope.
Dougherty said that free speech is an essential part of democracy, despite sometimes harmful rhetoric. Wecht agreed, saying, “The Constitution protects all speech…the First Amendment does not protect only happy speech.”
Lazarus was the only candidate to differ in her response. She emphasized the need for balance, arguing that some types of speech simply should not be protected.
LGBT issues were next. All candidates agreed that multiple cases will definitely be heard by the Supreme Court regarding LGBT issues.
Each candidates spoke of equal protection under the law for gay couples with Wecht saying, “equality means equality.”
The issue of gay couples and adoption was also raised. The general sense seemed to be to favor whatever is in the child’s best interest. Woodruff argued that a straight couple is not guaranteed to provide good care for a child anymore than a gay couple.
Foradora said the most important aspect of adoption is the guarantee of an intact family situation.
In an issue particularly important to those of Southwestern Pennsylvania, the candidates also discussed the nonprofit status of UPMC and if the courts are an appropriate venue to solve the question.
The candidates seemed to agree that the legislature should have a role in determining the status. Foradora went a step further saying, “The courts are always a proper forum for any dispute.” He hopes the legislature will decide but is open to the possibility of the issue reaching the court.
Woodruff and Wecht were both troubled by UPMC’s nonprofit status, with Woodruff saying, “There’s something wrong when they are nonprofit but some cannot afford access.” Wecht said UPMC’s status is “very troubling,” but it is up to the legislature.
Dougherty was concerned with the notion of companies making a profit at the expense of others while Lazarus wants the legislature to be more stringent when determining nonprofit status.
The candidates concluded with thoughts on the system of judicial selection. All agreed that changes were needed but said that elections were the best system available. Wecht argued that electing judges is the best of all the worst options.
He made the point that there are rogues in the courts who will try to halt elections and select judges by appointment. These rogues, Wecht argued, “will take rights away.”
Donohue affirmed her belief in elections, saying, “I believe in the election of judges. There is no better option.” Foradora agreed. He said, “I enjoy the process of elections.” Dougherty was also hesitant to call for any change but did emphasize the need for citizens to get to know the people they would be electing.
Foradora wrapped up his thoughts with a compelling statement by saying, “No one comes to the court with a party affiliation. People come with a case.”
Lightning Round Tidbits
No candidates have, or will accept, any endorsements from pro-life organizations.
Foradora was the only candidate willing to accept the endorsement of the NRA if given.
Five of the six candidates described Citizens United as the worst decision handed down by the Supreme Court.
Two of the judges named My Cousin Vinny as the best courtroom movie of all-time while two others chose A Few Good Men. The Verdict also received a vote.
The primary will be held May 19th.