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High Stakes in PA Supreme Court Race

August 26, 2015

Whether they know it or not, in November, Pennsylvanians will cast their votes for (among other positions) three seats on the bench of the commonwealth’s Supreme Court. This is the first time three such positions have been vacant at any one time in the Supreme Court since 1704, when justices were appointed by the British monarch.

It may seem strange, perhaps due to the fact that the federal counterpart to one of these spots is reserved only for those appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, but justices at the state level are in fact elected. And those who hold this position can affect the lives of average citizens in many ways.

The Supreme Court is responsible for small, but important things. One is appointing a tie-breaking voter in legislative redistricting, which can have a huge impact on elections at both the state and local levels. The Daily Kos notes that this is perhaps how Republicans won a majority in the legislature despite losing the overall popular vote. And with justices serving ten-year terms, this is crucial for a decade to come.

Another more obvious responsibility of Supreme Court justices is to hear and decide upon what are often the most important cases at the state level. This election is crucial in ensuring that that the courthouse doors remain open to civil litigants. The Democratic candidates, in particular, have proven track records of jurisprudence that respect the rights of victims seeking redress for injuries and damages caused through no fault of their own.

These include Christine Donohue, Kevin M. Dougherty, and David N. Wecht. Because of the demographic makeup of the commonwealth, these three candidates will need large turnouts in Philadelphia and Allegheny counties–along with their surrounding suburban areas–if they are to have a realistic chance of being elected.

Corporations and business interests have deep pockets, and under the rules of 2010’s Citizens United decision, judicial candidate’s campaigns can accept as much money as they want from outside sources.

A recent study from Emory University (with an accompanying article in Mother Jones) indicates (as we might expect) that “the more campaign money justices received from business interests, the more likely they were to vote in favor of businesses appearing before them.” And voters are catching on: “87 percent of Americans believe that campaign donations could influence court rulings.”

This research suggests a serious lack of trust in the impartiality of our judges. It also reflects the view that a private citizen may have the deck stacked against him or her in court.

If Pennsylvania voters want to have open access to the civil justice system, and not have the courts as captive agents of big business, this is the time for them to cast their votes for those candidates committed to these principles. The challenge will be in getting the vote out and keeping this race from being one of the most expensive judicial races in history.

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