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

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.