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Outside Spending on Campaign Ads Now Active on Both Sides in Pennsylvania Supreme Court Race

Two independent groups, The Republican State Leadership Committee and Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, are now embroiled in an ad war in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court election.

October 21, 2015

Two independent groups, The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, are now embroiled in an  ad war in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court election.  The RSLC, a national group that was also a top multi-state spender in 2014’s state Supreme Court elections, today announced that it had launched “a two-week, multi-platform ad campaign with an initial investment of more than $1 million” in the race. 

An RSLC-sponsored attack ad began airing this week claiming Democratic candidate Judge Kevin Dougherty “failed to protect a child” in a prior ruling as well as a positive ad praising Republican candidates Judge Anne Covey and Judge Judy Olson for “keeping violent criminals behind bars where they belong.”  Both ads were also published to the RSLC YouTube page.  Publicly available files maintained by the Federal Communications Commission show that the Washington, D.C.-based organization so far has booked nearly $94,000 in television airtime, mostly on stations that have run ads by Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, an interest group funded mostly by plaintiffs’ trial lawyers and unions, which criticize Republican high-court candidates.

In addition, this week, the Pennsylvania Republican Party posted online ads opposing Democratic candidates and one promoting Republican candidates. The latest ads come after Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform began running its ads criticizing three Republicans vying for three open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, according to research by the nonpartisan organizations the Brennan Center for Justice and the Justice at Stake.

“These outside groups are driving the negativity in this race, as candidate ads remain wholly positive. They demonstrate a disturbing trend of outside groups using a justice’s record in criminal matters to discredit them, which can have real consequences for the cases coming before the courts,” said Matt Menendez, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“We knew all along we’d likely see outside involvement on both sides in this race before it was all over,” said Liz Seaton, Interim Executive Director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that tracks spending in state judicial elections.  “As non-candidate groups get involved and up the ante in judicial elections, the need for real reform becomes more urgent.”

“Negative ads have no place in a judicial election where voters should be focused on qualifications, not on how special interest groups or political parties demonize candidates or unpopular decisions,” added Lynn Marks, Executive Director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.  “In advancing merit selection through the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, legislators from both sides of the aisle took the first step in getting ads like these – and money – out of the process of selecting judges.”

The latest salvos have come just as state legislators in the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 1336, which would do away with contested elections for the state’s highest courts. The measure provides for merit selection of statewide, appellate court judges who sit on the Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth Courts.

In 2014, the RSLC launched its “Judicial Fairness Initiative” and spent nearly $3.4 million in court races in several states, making it the biggest known multi-state spender that year.   

Meanwhile, Democratic candidates and Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform continue to dominate television airwaves in this year’s Pennsylvania race.  Ads sponsored by the campaigns and the independent group have been running since earlier this month.  Ads can be seen on the Brennan Center’s Buying Time website. Combined, they have purchased $1.6 million in airtime spending for ads booked through Oct.27 in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court race, according to FCC reports. The tally does not include contracts filed after 10 a.m. ET on Oct. 21.

Brennan Center for Justice Contact: Erik Opsal erik.opsal@nyu.edu 646-292-8356

Justice at Stake Contact: Laurie Kinney lkinney@justiceatstake.org , 202-588-9454, cell 571-882-3615

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Contact: Lynn Marks marks@pmconline.org 215-569-1150