By Sari Heidenreich
With statewide judicial elections only a week away, legal reform groups reveled Thursday that Pennsylvania was home to the second costliest judicial elections in the nation in the 2009/2010 cycle — though that likely won’t be the case for the Commonwealth and Superior Court races this time around.
“Pennsylvanians are concerned that campaign contributions affect what happens later in the courtroom,” said Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, who partnered with Justice at Stake Campaign to produce the report. “As elections become more expensive and as it becomes easier for corporations, unions and special interests to pour money into judicial campaigns, Pennsylvanians will continue to worry that justice is for sale.”
But this has not been the case for Republican Superior Court candidate Vic Stabile.
“The economy is making it much harder to raise money,” he said, adding that “the intermediate courts are really at a distinct advantage.”
In the election cycle the report looks at, there was a Supreme Court seat up for grabs, which is not the case this year.
The “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2009-10” report, issued by Justice At Stake Campaign, The Brennan Center for Justice and The National Institute on Money in State Politics, looked specifically at the 2009-2010 election cycle in which more than $5.4 million was spent on one open Supreme Court seat. The group labeled this as “posing some of the gravest threats yet to fair and impartial justice in America.”
Michigan outspent Pennsylvania by nearly $4 million.
The New Politics report also noted that the sum of Pennsylvania’s spending on judicial races since 2007 — $15.5 million — tops all other states in the nation.
“I think last cycle was an anomaly,” said Republican Commonwealth Candidate Anne Covey. “Each party wanted to work hard to get their particular person on the bench because of the issue of redistricting … so I think that really raised the stakes.”
Stabile said, “I haven’t received [a donation] that would suggest a purchase of influence. If I received something that was so disproportionate, I would not accept it.”
Stabile recieved 25,000 from the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association’s PAC Committee for a Better Tomorrow, according to the Associated Press. However, the group donated $300,000 his opponent, Allegheny County Judge David Wecht.
According to the New Politics report, the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association donated $1.4 million in the 2009-10 cycle. The Pennsylvania Republican Party was the second largest Pennsylvania-based donor, putting $1.5 million into last cycle’s judicial races. They were the fifth largest donors nationwide.
The most recent campaign finance reports, released last Thursday, show that Stabile has raised $198,000 so far, according to the Associated Press. His opponent, Allegheny County Judge David Wecht has raised $512,000.
Democratic Commonwealth Court candidate Kathryn Boockvar has raised $352,000 while opponent Anne Covey had received nearly $343,000 according to the AP.
Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, a nonpartisan legal reform group said “Pennsylvania has become a national symbol of special-interest pressure on our courts of law.”
But Covey said she feels this has been a non-issue in her campaign since “I certainly haven’t received any windfall” contributions she said.
Plus, “most of my contributions have come from my family,” Covey said, pointing out that the Commonwealth Court only hears cases from state agencies.
Boockvar said she supports reform on both the fundraising and recusal side of the issue
“We need the people to have faith in their judiciary. If they don’t have faith that they can go to the courts for justice — if they think that justice can be bought and sold –that’s a much less effective third branch of government.”
Boockvar said she would like to see some hard and fast requirements for judges to recuse themselves from cases involving parties who have heavily contributed to their campaign.
Wecht said the issue of campaign finance affecting judges once they are on the bench is irrelevant since you cannot allow it to affect your decision making.
“If any judge cannot abide by that he or she is require to recuse themselves if a contributor is involved,” Wecht said. “The judge is required to search his or her own soul and determine if he or she can be impartial or if there is an appearance of partiality or the prospect of bias.”
The report also advocated for a switch to a merit selection system of judge selection, saying it “has historically kept special-interest money out of high court selection.”
Merit selection systems vary from state to state but generally involve a committee reviewing candidates statewide and referring them to the governor or Congress.
While Boockvar and Wecht said this type of system is worth discussion but recognized that the switch to such as system may result in removing “Politics with a big ‘P’ and simply [replacing] that with politics with a lowercase ‘p’,” Wecht said.