With Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court primary less than a week away, television ad buys have reached at least $1,456,975, according to Federal Communications Commission records analyzed by the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake.
In this primary, 12 candidates are vying for three open seats — the most open at one time in the court’s history — making it likely that this year’s election cycle will be among the most expensive in state history. (The most expensive election to date was in 2007, where TV spending totals reached $4.6 million with two open seats and one retention election.) Two of the three seats up for election this cycle were vacated due to scandal, and the November general election will determine the ideological makeup of the court.
Thus far, seven candidates have booked airtime, running ads that have touted their own backgrounds and qualifications, avoiding attacks. Eight of the 16 total ads aired focused on ethics or court reforms. While the sources of candidate contributions for 2015 have not yet been coded, historically, lawyers, law firms, and business interests have been the principal sources for contributions. Interest groups and political parties have thus far not sponsored any ads.
“Given the court’s history with scandal, it’s no wonder the candidates are spending big on ads that focus on ethics,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “This history makes it particularly important that voters have confidence that judges are not influenced by outside interests. Stronger rules to protect judges from conflicts of interest would go a long way in ensuring courts are fair and impartial.”
“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has become a national story after years of scandals that have hurt the public’s trust in the high court,” said Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that advocates for fair courts. “Pennsylvanians deserve fair and impartial courts that aren’t influenced by money and special interests, and it’s disturbing that nearly $1.5 million dollars have already been poured into television advertising ahead of a primary. A 30-second ad cannot offer enough information to make an informed decision. The time has come for Pennsylvania to seriously consider a merit selection system that will help insulate judges from campaign cash and political pressure.”
“TV advertising is very expensive, so judicial candidates have to raise tens of thousands of dollars just to get on the air,” noted Lynn Marks, Executive Director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. “And most of that money comes from lawyers, law firms, and special interests that have business before the court. Merit selection removes the insidious problem of money and focuses exclusively on qualifications.”
Leading the pack in TV ad spending is Judge Kevin Dougherty, a Democrat, with contracts totaling at least $686,150 according to FCC files. Judge David Wecht, a Democrat, has booked TV contracts worth at least $221,720, records show. Judge John Foradora, also competing in the Democratic primary, has booked TV contracts worth at least $118,200. Judge Anne Lazarus, a Democrat, has booked ad contracts totaling at least $138,695. Democratic Judges Dwayne Woodruff and Christine Donohue have not booked any TV ads to date.
Republican candidates, meanwhile, have spent less on TV advertising than their Democratic counterparts. Judges Judy Olson and Michael George have jointly booked ad contracts worth at least $128,450. In addition, George has booked separate contracts worth at least $71,090, and Olson has booked separate contracts worth at least $15,765. Judge Anne Covey, also a Republican, has booked contracts worth at least $76,905. Justice Correale Stevens, Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen, and Montour County District Attorney Rebecca Warren, the remaining Republicans in the race, have not booked TV ad contracts to date.
Pennsylvania has a history of high spending in judicial elections. In the decade from 2000–2009, it ranked in second place nationwide for supreme court candidate spending and fourth for television ad spending in supreme court races, according to The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2000–2009: Decade of Change report by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Ads and storyboards are available on the Brennan Center’s “Buying Time” webpage.