HARRISBURG -- Candidates for state Supreme Court are sitting on more than $2 million in campaign cash, even as the race to fill three seats on the top court is just starting.
That's just the first trickle of what's expected to be a flood of money in the historic election of three justices on the high court.
A dozen candidates are seeking six nominations – three from each major party.
Two seats are up for election as a result of resignations by disgraced justices – a Republican Joan Orie Melvin convicted of corruption for using staff to do political work and a Democrat Seamus McCaffery implicated in a pornographic email scandal.
The third vacancy will be left by the retirement of Chief Justice Ronald Castille.
Tuesday was Pennsylvania's deadline for candidates to file their first campaign finance reports ahead of a May 19 primary. But not all records were immediately available; candidates can satisfy the deadline by dropping forms in the mail.
Disclosures still in the wings included those of both candidates endorsed by the state Democratic Party, Superior Court Judge David Wecht and Philadelphia County Judge Kevin Dougherty.
Campaigns for Wecht and Dougherty issued statements saying they finished the quarter with more than a half-million dollars in their war chests. Dougherty’s camp said he has $585,000 to spend, and Wecht’s camp said he has $576,000 cash on hand.
“We are on track to not only reach but surpass our campaign goals so that we can effectively communicate our winning message across the state," said Wecht’s campaign manager, Mitch Kates, in an emailed statement.
Adams County Judge Michael George, who was endorsed by the state Republican Party, reported that his campaign received $547,000 in donations and ended the quarter with $508,460 cash on hand.
Other candidates endorsed by the Republican Party were Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey and Superior Court Judge Judy Olson. Covey reported $56,000 in donations for the quarter. Olson reported that she’s gotten $1,100 in donations.
Spending will ratchet up as the November general election nears. Some law firms will donate to multiple candidates to better their odds of backing winners, said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a reform group based in Philadelphia. But not many will be willing to donate to all 12 candidates.
In 2009, an election for two seats on the Supreme Court cost candidates $5 million combined. But more recent elections for judges in other states have far outstripped that. A nationwide analysis by Mother Jones magazine found that statewide judicial candidates raised a collective $110 million in 2012.
The flood of money into the election raises questions about how cash, or the perception of its influence, taints the public's opinion of a judicial system already marred by scandal, Marks said. Those worries are aggravated by the fact that many contributors are trial attorneys or other special interests who may end up with cases before the court, she said.
Eleven of the 12 candidates are already judges. That means, win or lose, they will be on one bench or another.
Marks said that means lawyers may feel compelled to donate to avoid having to argue cases in front of judges who feel like they’ve been snubbed.
“There is just something wrong with a system that practically requires judges and judicial candidates to seek contributions and endorsements from people who could be before them,” she said. “I’m not saying that judges are making decisions based on who gives the money, but that’s the perception that the public has."
The perception matters, Marks said.
“If you come into court and you know that the other guy gave money to the judge,” she asked, “are you going to feel like you’re going to get your day in court?”
Pennsylvania is one of just two states electing state judges this year, and more outside money is expected to flow into the race.
Reports filed this week don’t include that spending.
Of the $15 million spent on judicial races last year, more than $8.5 million came from independent groups - including nonprofits, sometimes known as dark-money groups, that do not disclose donors, according to the Center for American Progress.
Concerns about the influence of campaign cash on judicial elections are why the state should appoint justices to its Supreme Court, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College.
“I think electing judges is too much of a lottery,” Madonna said. “Even though there are flaws with appointing judges, there are fewer flaws than there are with judicial elections.”
Among the candidates not endorsed by a party, Superior Court Judge Anne Lazarus, a Democrat, reported just over $300,000 in donations, including a $75,000 loan she made to her own campaign.
Supreme Court Justice Correale Stevens, a Republican and the only incumbent in the race, said he finished the quarter with about $46,000 cash on hand. Stevens was appointed to fill the vacancy created by Melvin's resignation.
Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue, a Democrat, reported $185,000 in donations.
“We feel confident we are on track,” said Marty Marks, a spokesman for Donohue. He expressed optimism that the lack of the party’s endorsement won’t be a deciding factor.
But, with so many candidates, the party's stamp of approval could matter as voters try to struggle to pick candidates, Madonna said.
“It’s a crap shoot,” he said.