A 15-Million-Dollar State Supreme Court Campaign

One of my most distinct memories from the epochal election year of 1980 was sitting in a motel room in Reno waiting to watch the Carter-Reagan debate, and gazing in awe at a long series of ads for people running for the Nevada Supreme Court. I don’t remember the exact scripts, but one candidate did brag that he had been nicknamed “the hanging judge,” and another basically said he’d always rule against the criminals. I understood for the first time why State Bar rules back in Georgia and in many other states banned this type of campaigning in judicial elections (in Georgia, back then at least, you could advertise your biography and your Bar Association recommendation and that was about it).

In any event, I thought about those Nevada ads when reading today about the vast campaign over three Supreme Court openings in Pennsylvania that will come to an end today. ThinkProgress‘ Ian Millhiser has the story:

$15,850,297.

That’s how much candidates and interested groups have spent to influence the race for three seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, according to Justice At Stake, a watchdog group which tracks state judicial races. And that number is only likely to grow as it is based on records that have already been filed in this election, which is being held Tuesday. When all the data is available, it is likely that far more will have been spent.
Even with incomplete numbers, however, Justice At Stake says that the Pennsylvania race “has broken the previous documented national spending record for any state Supreme Court race.”

The number of openings was enhanced by the kind of judicial misbehavior that undermines any public respect for the sanctity of judicial offices:

Three seats are open in part because Pennsylvania’s highest court has behaved quite injudiciously in recent years. One seat is vacant due to the resignation of former Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican convicted of campaign corruption charges in 2013. Another justice, Democrat Seamus McCaffery, retired due to a scandal where he “forwarded sexually explicit emails containing photos of naked women and graphic sex videos to a state worker who forwarded them to other state workers.”

Former Chief Justice Ronald Castille, a Republican, also retired from the Court in December of 2014. Though he did not retire amidst scandal — he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 — the Supreme Court of the United States is currently reviewing Castille’s refusal to recuse himself from a death penalty case involving a man that Castille helped prosecute. Castille was the district attorney who supervised the death row inmate’s prosecutors, and he approved his office’s decision to seek the death penalty and to defend that sentence on appeal.

Meanwhile, a fourth member of the court, Justice Michael Eakin, is also being investigated due to a different scandal involving sexually explicit emails.

Nice.

But as Patrick Kerkstra of Philadelphia Magazine points out, the only way to a better court is through this insanely expensive campaign:

Pennsylvania voters get a blessed opportunity to start cleaning up the state’s train wreck of a Supreme Court on Tuesday, when they’ll fill three of seven seats on the high court. This is a huge election, one that could have far-reaching consequences for everything from school funding, to gun control to the political balance of power in Harrisburg.

Theoretically, judges are not partisan actors. But in the real world, a judge’s party affiliation often telegraphs how they’ll rule on a wide array of politically-charged issues. That’s even more true in a state, like Pennsylvania, that elects its judges.

Right now, the court is comprised of three Republicans and two Democrats, with two empty seats. One of the sitting Republicans leaves the bench in January. It’s not an exaggeration to say the political balance of the court could be decided for a decade or more, depending on who turns out Tuesday. Justices are elected to 10-year terms, and re-election is easy. The judges chosen for the high court Tuesday will likely be with us for a very long time.

There really should be a better way.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.