HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – The candidates for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court outnumber the open seats by a 4-1 ratio.
Never before have three seats on the court been up for grabs in the same election year, state officials say. And the fact that a dozen people qualified for the primary ballot is a testament to the power that the seven-member court wields in shaping everything from criminal laws to legislative redistricting.
The candidates – six Democrats and six Republicans – are mostly judges on the statewide appellate courts or the county bench.
For many of them, the top priority is repairing the court’s scandal-stained image.
“How could it be otherwise, given the recent events (involving) the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania?” asked Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue, a Democratic candidate from Allegheny County.
Two of the openings resulted from midterm resignations by disgraced justices – a Republican convicted of corruption for using state-paid staff to do political work and a Democrat ensnared in a pornographic email scandal. The third vacancy was left by the retirement of Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who stepped down after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 last year.
But the campaign will be shaped by forces besides the need for internal reforms.
The current mandatory retirement law could prevent four of the candidates from completing full 10-year terms if they are elected. And the presence of two Black candidates on the primary ballot may underscore the fact that only one African-American has ever been elected to the court.
This election also could flip the court from a Republican majority to a Democratic one in a race that’s widely expected to unleash a flood of campaign cash from outside interest groups.
Both parties have endorsed candidates in the May 19 primary.
Republicans tapped Superior Court Judge Judy Olson, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey and Adams County Judge Mike George. Democrats endorsed Superior Court Judge David Wecht and Philadelphia Judge Kevin Dougherty, but could not muster enough votes for a third endorsee.
The primary will winnow the field to three nominees from each party. The next justices will be the top three vote-getters in the Nov. 3 election. The job carries a $203,000-plus annual salary.
The constitutional provision that requires judges to retire at the end of the year in which they turn 70 will most directly affect Correale Stevens, the only sitting Supreme Court justice in the race.
Then-Gov. Tom Corbett promoted the Luzerne County Republican from the state Superior Court in 2013 to finish the term of convicted Justice Joan Orie Melvin after she resigned.
Stevens will turn 70 next year and, if elected to a full term, would take his oath in January but have to retire at the end of 2016. However, Stevens is confident that a proposed constitutional amendment that would increase the mandatory retirement age to 75 will be approved by the voters next year, allowing him to serve six years. The legislation has been approved by the House of Representatives and awaits Senate action.
“I would not be running just for a one-year term,” he said.
Superior Court Judge Cheryl Allen, a Republican, turns 70 in 2017 and would have to retire at the end of the year unless the constitution is amended. Democrats Donohue and fellow Superior Court Judge Anne Lazarus would face mandatory retirement in 2022 under the present law.
Allen said voters should focus on a judge’s accomplishments, not the length of his or her tenure.
“Tomorrow’s not promised to anybody,” she said.
The only African-American elected to the state Supreme Court was Robert N.C. Nix Jr., whose 24-year tenure included 12 as chief justice before he stepped down in 1996. Two Black women served interim appointments as justices – Juanita Kidd Stout in 1988-89 and Cynthia Baldwin from 2006 to 2008.
Two Black candidates are running in the primary: Allen, a Republican and the only minority among the 31 seats on the three statewide appellate courts, and Democrat Dwayne Woodruff, an Allegheny County judge and former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back.
“I think being on the Supreme Court’s going to give me a larger platform in regard to serving the people in the commonwealth, particularly when it comes to education and caring of families,” said Woodruff, who has been an Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas judge since 2005.
Woodruff, 57, had 37 interceptions while playing in the NFL from 1979 to 1990, and was a rookie on the Steelers squad that beat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV.
Woodruff was nominated to fill a county vacancy in 2004 by then-Gov. Ed Rendell, after which he was elected to a full 10-year term.
After failing to win an endorsement from the Democratic state committee last month, Woodruff had bemoaned the lack of diversity on the courts. He said this week that he does not intend to raise race as an issue in his campaign, but that “it is something people should consider.”
“I’m not going to be very vocal on it, but everybody knows it’s there,” he said.
Also competing in the primary are Jefferson County Judge John Foradora, a Democrat, and the Montour County district attorney, Republican Rebecca Warren.
The state bar’s judicial evaluation commission awarded positive ratings of “highly recommended” or “recommended” to all the candidates but Covey and Warren, who received “not recommended” ratings.