By Gina Diorio
While next year’s U.S. Senate race and, to a lesser extent, gubernatorial race are capturing much of the political media’s attention, Pennsylvania has another statewide election in just a few months. On Nov. 2, voters will elect four judges to open seats on our three statewide appellate courts.
Before moving to Pennsylvania, I lived almost all my life in Jersey, where the governor appoints judges. So when I realized some states elect their judges, I was befuddled. Then, when I learned Pennsylvania elects judges in partisan elections, I was dumbfounded.
You might be thinking, who cares? Why do these races matter? I’m glad you asked.
Pennsylvania has three statewide appellate courts: Supreme Court, Superior Court, and Commonwealth Court. Superior Court and Commonwealth Court are equal in ‘rank’, so to speak, but hear different types of cases.
The 15-member Superior Court hears appeals in criminal and most civil cases. And the court’s rulings can have a major impact on individuals, local businesses , and more.
For example, the Superior Court has ruled on “venue shopping,” the practice of allowing trial lawyers to cherry pick where they bring personal injury cases—regardless of where the alleged injury occurred—based on which court has a history of ordering big payouts. (Hello, Philadelphia.)
The Superior Court has also chimed in on whether workers can sue former employers for illnesses that appear long after they’ve left their jobs (another potential trial lawyers’ dream).
The 9-member Commonwealth Court, meanwhile, hears cases relating to state and local government.
Last year, when businesses challenged Gov. Wolf COVID orders, some of these cases went to Commonwealth Court. When the League of Women Voters challenged our congressional map back in 2017, that lawsuit began in Commonwealth Court. And when my organization, Commonwealth Partners, challenged our state’s unbalanced budget, we filed the case in Commonwealth Court.
Of course, our 7-member Supreme Court can overturn or sustain any ruling from the Superior or Commonwealth courts on appeal. However, it can also take any case directly, regardless of its status in the lower courts.
We saw this last year when the Supreme Court assumed jurisdiction over whether the General Assembly could terminate Wolf’s emergency disaster declaration without Wolf’s approval. As you’ll recall, the court ruled against the General Assembly—paving the way for the recently passed constitutional amendments reining in a governor’s emergency powers.
The Supreme Court assumed jurisdiction over whether the General Assembly could terminate Wolf’s emergency disaster declaration without Wolf’s approval.
Given that each judge in all three appellate courts is elected, the stakes and costs of judicial elections can quickly mount.
In 2015, Pennsylvania set a record for the most expensive state judicial races in history to date, at more than $15 million.
Spending was so high because three seats on our Supreme Court were up for election, and Democrats saw the chance to flip that court and have the final say over all the types of cases mentioned above—plus many more.
Democrats succeeded, and as a result we’ve seen the court toss our congressional maps, change the voting rules just before last year’s election, and uphold Gov. Wolf’s business shutdown orders, to name just a few things. (For more on harmful Supreme Court rulings since 2015, check out Commonwealth Partners President and CEO Matt Brouillette’s recent op-ed.)
This year, voters will choose one Supreme Court justice, one Superior Court judge, and two Commonwealth Court judges. (In full disclosure, Commonwealth Partners, has endorsed candidates in each race.)
All these seats are currently held by Republicans. Democrats hope to expand their 5-2 majority on the Supreme Court, flip the Superior Court (which currently has an 8-7 Republican majority), and make inroads into the 7-2 Republican majority on the Commonwealth Court.
Of course, seeking partisan gains for partisan ends is a barrier to an objective judiciary. Instead, we should seek judges who uphold the rule of law.
So as November approaches, Pennsylvanians would do well to recognize that, despite their lack of excitement, judicial elections are critically important—and vote accordingly.
READ MORE — PA’s congressional delegation split on legality of eviction moratorium.
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Gina Diorio is the Public Affairs Director at Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, an independent, non-partisan, 501(c)(6) membership organization dedicated to improving the economic environment and educational opportunities in Pennsylvania. www.thecommonwealthpartners.com.