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Pennsylvania Logs Costliest Supreme Court Race in U.S. History

Even as spending figures continue to roll in, Pennsylvania’s superheated Supreme Court race has broken a national record. More troubling is this unacceptable level of politicization is now the norm, not the exception, for judicial races.

November 3, 2015

Pennsylvani­a’s super­heated Supreme Court elec­tion has broken the previ­ous docu­mented national spend­ing record for any state Supreme Court race, even as spend­ing figures continue to roll in. 

Total docu­mented spend­ing in the race has now reached $15,850,297, surpass­ing the previ­ous national record of $15.19 million set in the 2004 Illinois race between Lloyd Karmeier and Gordon Maag, accord­ing to an analysis of state disclos­ures and tele­vi­sion advert­ising by the nonpar­tisan organ­iz­a­tions the Bren­nan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake.

This year’s total is very likely to rise, since spend­ing is still being calcu­lated as records are filed right before and after Elec­tion Day. Pennsylvani­a’s previ­ous record for total spend­ing in a state Supreme Court race was $10,519,717 in 2007. 

The Bren­nan Center for Justice, Justice at Stake, and the National Insti­tute on Money in State Polit­ics have docu­mented spend­ing in state Supreme Court elec­tions since 2000 in the New Polit­ics of Judi­cial Elec­tions series. The groups issued their latest report last week track­ing spend­ing in the 2013–14 judi­cial campaign cycle.

“With three seats up for grabs, we were concerned that spend­ing could reach historic levels,” said Matt Menen­dez, Coun­sel at the Bren­nan Center for Justice. “Still, perhaps more troub­ling is that this unac­cept­able level of politi­ciz­a­tion is becom­ing the norm for judi­cial elec­tions, rather than an excep­tion. Some­thing has to change.”

“We could see this coming like a freight train in Pennsylvania,” said Liz Seaton, Interim Exec­ut­ive Director of Justice at Stake, an organ­iz­a­tion that tracks spend­ing in judi­cial elec­tions. “Every­one should be stunned that a national spend­ing record for state judi­cial elec­tions has fallen. The prob­lem is grow­ing, and Pennsylvani­ans deserve a better system for select­ing their high court judges.”       

“This record for high spend­ing is a national distinc­tion Pennsylvani­ans never wanted to claim,” said Lynn A. Marks, Exec­ut­ive Director of Pennsylvani­ans for Modern Courts. “Expens­ive attack ads against judges bought and sold by special interest groups are no way to pick judges. It’s the right time for Pennsylvania to get our statewide judges out of the campaign and fundrais­ing busi­ness and move to a merit selec­tion system, as recently repor­ted out of the House Judi­ciary Commit­tee with strong bipar­tisan support.”

In addi­tion to candid­ate spend­ing and advert­ising, the Pennsylvania elec­tion has featured inde­pend­ent spend­ing by two interest groups in the race, the Repub­lican State Lead­er­ship Commit­tee (RSLC), support­ing Repub­lican candid­ates, and Pennsylvani­ans for Judi­cial Reform, support­ing Demo­crats. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, outside spend­ing by interest groups has grown as a phenomenon in judi­cial races, as docu­mented in Bank­rolling the Bench: The New Polit­ics of Judi­cial Elec­tions 2013–14

Candid­ates have raised at least $12,817,377 during the 2015 primary and general elec­tion, accord­ing to publicly filed state campaign disclos­ures and 24-hour contri­bu­tion reports. Pennsylvani­a’s prior record for candid­ate fundrais­ing, set in 2007, was $9,464,975.

Records on file before 12 p.m. ET on Novem­ber 2 indic­ate the follow­ing fundrais­ing totals for primary and general elec­tion candid­ates: 

  • Christine Dono­hue (D) $1,923,910.52
  • Kevin Dougherty (D) $3,853,205.51
  • David N. Wecht (D) $2,880,604
  • Anne Covey (R) $925,406.29
  • Michael A. George (R) $861,623.60
  • Judith Olson (R) $575,007.56
  • Paul Panepinto (I) $234,000
  • Six primary losers raised a total of $1,563,619.85

Count­ing ads that already have aired in both the primary and general elec­tions, total estim­ated airtime spend­ing is $9.96 million through Novem­ber 1, accord­ing to the most recent estim­ates by CMAG/Kantar Media.

Candid­ate fundrais­ing and over­all spend­ing totals do not include disclos­ures filed after 12 p.m. on Novem­ber 2, or polit­ical ads aired after Novem­ber 1.     

The three top vote-getters among seven candid­ates will win three open seats, which each carry a 10-year term.

Justice at Stake and the Bren­nan Center for Justice will continue to track fundrais­ing and spend­ing on tele­vi­sion advert­ising for this fall’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court elec­tion. Videos of tele­vi­sion ads from CMAG/Kantar Media are avail­able at Bren­nan’s Buying Time 2015 ad track­ing website.

Accord­ing to the most recent CMAG/Kantar estim­ates of tele­vi­sion ads that have aired, candid­ates and interest groups spent the follow­ing on airtime for both the primary and general elec­tion, through Novem­ber 1:

  • Christine Dono­hue (D) $1,064,090
  • Kevin Dougherty (D) $2,742,690
  • David N. Wecht (D) $1,723,190
  • Pennsylvania Repub­lican Party $7,430
  • Pennsylvani­ans for Judi­cial Reform $2,266,170
  • Anne Covey (R) $364,160
  • Michael A. George (R) $333,890
  • Judith Olson (R) $217,590
  • Repub­lican State Lead­er­ship Commit­tee $759,310 ** The RSLC has issued announce­ments that it has spent more than $1.5 million on tele­vi­sion advert­ising; CMAG estim­ates do not yet reflect this amount
  • Anne Lazarus (D; primary only) $287,120
  • John Foradora (D; primary only) $197,050

Contact: Bren­nan Center for Justice: Erik Opsal | erik.opsal@nyu.edu | 646–292–8356; Justice at Stake: Laurie Kinney | lkin­ney@justiceats­take.org | cell 571–882–3615 Pennsylvani­ans for Modern Courts: Lynn Marks | mark­s@p­m­con­line.org | 215–569–1150

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The Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law  is a nonpar­tisan law and policy insti­tute that seeks to improve our systems of demo­cracy and justice. We work to hold our polit­ical insti­tu­tions and laws account­able to the twin Amer­ican ideals of demo­cracy and equal justice for all. The Center’s work ranges from voting rights to campaign finance reform, from ending mass incar­cer­a­tion to preserving Consti­tu­tional protec­tion in the fight against terror­ism. Part think tank, part advocacy group, part cutting-edge commu­nic­a­tions hub, we start with rigor­ous research. We craft innov­at­ive policies. And we fight for them — in Congress and the states, the courts, and in the court of public opin­ion.

Justice at Stake is a nonpar­tisan campaign work­ing to keep Amer­ica’s courts fair and impar­tial. Justice at Stake and its 50-plus state and national part­ners work for reforms to keep polit­ics and special interests out of the courtroom—so judges can protect our Consti­tu­tion, our rights and the rule of law. Justice at Stake also educates Amer­ic­ans about the role of the courts, promotes diversity on the bench, and supports adequate resources for courts.

Pennsylvani­ans for Modern Courts is a statewide, nonprofit, nonpar­tisan organ­iz­a­tion work­ing to ensure that all Pennsylvani­ans can come to our courts for justice with confid­ence that the most qual­i­fied, fair, and impar­tial judges will preside over their cases.