Harrisburg — It was make or break time for the candidates for Commonwealth and Superior Courts.
The eleven hopefuls for statewide judicial elections this year went before the Democratic state committee members to show why they should be endorsed the statewide judicial offices this year.
The debated and discussed the law at a forum hosted by the Pennsylvania Federation of Democratic Women.
This forum was the most crowded of the evening, with all 7 candidates participating to fight fighting for two endorsement positions: Rep. Bryan Barbin, Timothy Barry, Judge Ellen Ceisler, Irene Clark, Judge Joe Cosgrove, James C. Crumlish III and Todd Eagen.
There are two openings on the nine-member court, which hears challenges to state legislation and executive actions. It’s the first step for most legal action that intersects with state politics, and currently has 7 Republican judges and 2 Democrats.
The performance put on by the candidates in the forum probably did not move any votes. All seven candidates proved capable in the generally genial format. They faced questions including school funding, police power, women’s rights, and Marcellus shale and environmental issues.
On school funding, the candidates all agreed that education needs to be funded fairly and in accordance with the constitutional requirements.
“There is a Constitutional requirement for a free and public education,” Barbin said.
The candidates agreed also that the Court does not make the laws, but interprets the laws and the Constitution.
“The Court’s job is to interpret the laws, not make them,” Eagan said.
The candidates addressed what the Court should do when it faces issues of police power. Most of the candidates agreed that it was a balancing act that had to be performed.
“We know the balance we have to abide by, know the Commonwealth Court is in a unique position to protect Constitutional rights of all citizens,” said Cosgrove. He was appointed to the Court by Gov. Tom Wolf in July and is running for a full term.
“There are a lot of good police officers out there, and they have a difficult job. We cannot make their job harder, but we have to balance that with individual rights,” Barry said.
The candidates diverged a little from each other when the topic of when’s right’s came up, While they all agreed that it was important for the Court to protect women’s right, they differed when it came to the how to best accomplish equality.
“It is very important to have a woman’s perspective on the Commonwealth Court,” Clark said.
Crumlish pointed to the Pa. and U.S. constitutions as the main driver for the protections of women’s rights.
“Both of our Constitutions provide all the protection we need.”
When addressing the tension between shale and natural gas development and environmental concerns, all of the candidates agreed that it was a balancing act between the two sides.
“The Commonwealth Court is ground zero of all of these issues, and I believe the Commonwealth Court can do a better job at examining the issues surrounding these issues,” Ceisler said in her response.
The race for the Commonwealth Court endorsements will come to a head tomorrow when the State Party members will vote to endorse two of the seven candidates, or decide to leave the primary open.
The Superior Court forum was another one to help soothe nervous party members before the endorsements.
The forum featured five of the candidates running for the 4 open seats on the Court: Judge Carolyn Nichols, Bill Caye, Judge Deborah A. Kunselman, Judge Maria McLaughlin and Judge H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr.
The Superior Court has the least political consequence of the three state appellate courts, primarily hearing appeals from county courts of common pleas. Currently GOP judges outnumber Democrats 8-to-6.
The forum focused on issues ranging from the First Amendment protections, immigration, family law, and LGBT rights.
All of the candidates agreed that the Court needed to protect the First Amendment, especially the freedom of the press.
We need to “make sure the media is not intimidated,” Moulton said.
“Freedom of the press is one of the most fundamental freedom in the U.S.,” Nichols echoed.
The candidates all agreed that when issues that relate to immigration would come before the Court they would need to treat those cases with compassion.
On social issues and LGBT rights, the candidates all said that the Court needed to protect the rights women and the LGBT community.
“I have dealt with many LGBTQ issues. I would look at these cases the same as any other cases, those litigants deserve what everybody else does before the court, to be treated fairly,” Kunselman said.
“We need to be sensitive and mindful, as a judge we have to go over and above,” McLaughlin said.
Caye summed up the entire panel: “I think it is very important when you are electing judges you elect judges who share your same values.”
Supreme Court: Dwayne Woodruff
Judge Dwayne Woodruff noticed the big difference between the last time he ran for the Supreme Court veruses this year.
“Last time we had the whole football team up here, now we just have the quarterback,” he joked at the start.
The major question he faced was on redistricting and how we viewed the redrawing of district lines.
“We have gotten to the point where instead of the people electing their representatives, the representatives are electing their districts,” he said.
Disclosure: Judge Ellen Ceisler was formerly married to Larry Ceisler, one of the owners of PoliticsPA.