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Spending in Pennsylvania Supreme Court Race Tops Out Over $16.5 Million

These spending patterns suggest certain groups, such as plaintiff’s attorneys and unions, sought to influence the outcome of this election. Of even greater concern are the groups who don’t disclose their donors.

November 6, 2015

A post-Elec­tion Day tally of docu­mented spend­ing in Pennsylvani­a’s 2015 Supreme Court race shows total spend­ing rose to $16,536,492, further surpass­ing the previ­ous national record for a Supreme Court race, accord­ing to an analysis of state disclos­ures and tele­vi­sion advert­ising by the nonpar­tisan organ­iz­a­tions the Bren­nan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake.

The latest data incor­por­ates spend­ing inform­a­tion obtained on and imme­di­ately after Elec­tion Day. On that day, Novem­ber 3, docu­mented spend­ing in the race had already reached $15,850,297, break­ing the previ­ous national record of $15.19 million set in Illinois in 2004. Pennsylvani­a’s prior record for total spend­ing in a state Supreme Court race was $10,519,717 in 2007.

Candid­ates raised at least $13,097,912 during the 2015 primary and general elec­tions, accord­ing to publicly filed state campaign disclos­ures and 24-hour contri­bu­tion reports. Pennsylvani­a’s previ­ous record for candid­ate fundrais­ing, set in 2007, was $9,464,975.

Demo­crats and their allies outspent Repub­lic­ans and their allies in the race, and the three Demo­cratic candid­ates, Judges Christine Dono­hue, Kevin Dougherty, and David N. Wecht, swept all three open seats.

“These spend­ing patterns suggest that certain groups, such as plaintiff’s attor­neys and unions, sought to influ­ence the outcome of this elec­tion through their contri­bu­tions,” said Matt Menen­dez, Coun­sel at the Bren­nan Center for Justice. “Of even greater concern, however, are the groups, such as the PA Alli­ance and the Repub­lican State Lead­er­ship Commit­tee, whose contrib­ut­ors’ iden­tit­ies are not fully disclosed by Elec­tion Day.”

“Over­blown campaign spend­ing in state court races is a giant and grow­ing storm that threatens justice,” said Liz Seaton, Interim Exec­ut­ive Director of Justice at Stake. “Our recent research shows that in the 2013–14 cycle, more than 90 percent of contested state Supreme Court races were won by the candid­ate who raised the most money. The Pennsylvania race – the most expens­ive of its kind in history – confirms that find­ing. We need to break this cycle by moving away from contested elec­tions for judges.” 

“Now that the cost­li­est state Supreme Court race in U.S. history has been run in Pennsylvania, the state has an oppor­tun­ity to set a national example by reject­ing these expens­ive and politi­cized races,” said Lynn A. Marks, Exec­ut­ive Director of Pennsylvani­ans for Modern Courts. “Judges don’t belong on the campaign trail and lawyers and groups who are often in court should­n’t be dictat­ing who wins or loses. We’re encour­aged to see merit selec­tion gain­ing trac­tion as a viable reform with bipar­tisan support.” 

Where the Money Came From

The Commit­tee for a Better Tomor­row, a group largely funded by attor­neys, was a major source of contri­bu­tions to Demo­cratic candid­ates. They accoun­ted for 39.7 percent of Dono­hue’s total contri­bu­tions, 16.9 percent of Dougher­ty’s total contri­bu­tions, and 24.3 percent of Wecht’s total contri­bu­tions. Dona­tions to Repub­lican candid­ates did not come from one clear source or group. Gary Lowenthal, an indi­vidual, contrib­uted $500,000 to Mike George in early 2015, account­ing for 56.6 percent of George’s total haul.

Both the Demo­cratic and Repub­lican candid­ates saw outside groups spend in their favor. The Repub­lican State Lead­er­ship Commit­tee inde­pend­ently spent almost $900,000 on tele­vi­sion advert­ise­ments prais­ing Anne Covey and Judith Olson and criti­ciz­ing Dougherty. A search of the publicly filed state campaign disclos­ures and 24-hour contri­bu­tion reports does not yield any inform­a­tion about their donors.

Accord­ing to the publicly filed state campaign disclos­ure and 24-hour contri­bu­tion reports, Pennsylvani­ans for Judi­cial Reform, which inde­pend­ently spent $2.53 million on TV advert­ise­ments attack­ing the Repub­lican candid­ates, received 47 percent of its contri­bu­tions from iden­ti­fi­able union groups. An addi­tional 23 percent of its fund­ing came from the Commit­tee for a Better Tomor­row, and 19 percent of its fund­ing came from the PA Alli­ance, a group that has not disclosed its contrib­ut­ors.

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.

Total Fundrais­ing and TV Spend­ing Figures

Records on file before 12 p.m. ET on Novem­ber 5 indic­ate the follow­ing fundrais­ing totals for primary and general elec­tion candid­ates: 

  • Christine Dono­hue (D): $1,951,410.52
  • Kevin Dougherty (D): $3,984,374.93
  • David N. Wecht (D): $2,880,604.00
  • Anne Covey (R): $984,654.62
  • Michael A. George (R): $882,918.67
  • Judith Olson (R):  $616,329.70
  • Paul Panepinto (I): $234,000.00
  • 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 $11,072,460 million through Novem­ber 3, accord­ing to the most recent estim­ates by CMAG/Kantar Media. Non-candid­ate groups spent a total of $3,438,580 on tele­vi­sion airtime. 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 3:

  • Christine Dono­hue (D): $1,218,530
  • Kevin Dougherty (D): $3,009,700
  • David N. Wecht (D): $1,836,210
  • Pennsylvania Repub­lican Party: $7,690
  • Pennsylvani­ans for Judi­cial Reform: $2,532,800
  • Anne Covey (R): $422,330
  • Michael A. George (R): $356,760
  • Judith Olson (R): $306,180
  • Repub­lican State Lead­er­ship Commit­tee: $898,090 
  • Anne Lazarus (D; primary only): $287,120
  • John Foradora (D; primary only): $197,050

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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.