Three Republicans are in the running to get their party’s nomination to run to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor.
The winner of the Republican primary will presumably face off against Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin, who is unopposed in the Democratic Primary.
The three competing for the Republican nomination are: Commonwealth Court President Judge Kevin Brobson, Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough and Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge Paula Patrick. Brobson has been endorsed by the state Republican Party.
Supreme Court justices are paid $215,037 a year.
Voters have a difficult time judging candidates in judicial races because the candidates can’t make pledges about how they might rule on issues that later come before them, said Debbie Gross, president and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a group that has long advocated for moving to a system in which judges are appointed by merit rather than directly-elected by the general public.
Pennsylvania is one of just seven states -- the others are Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Carolina and Texas -- where the highest state court judges are elected in contested partisan elections, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
After serving a 10-year term, state Supreme Court justices run in nonpartisan, yes-or-no retention elections, without opposition from other candidates.
The election has, thus far, generated little buzz, much unlike some previous Supreme Court elections -- most notably the 2015 election when three seats were up for election and Democrats won control of the court, Gross said.
“I wonder if it’s because it’s a primary. The year that was significant was 2015. There was more than one seat open. It was to change the balance of the court. Here there’s only one seat open,” she said. “My personal opinion is there will be more money put in once the Republican primary is settled,” she said.
This year, with only one seat up for election, Democrats will retain the majority on the court regardless of who wins the race for Saylor’s seat. Saylor is one of just two Republicans among seven justices on the Supreme Court.
G. Terry Madonna, senior fellow in residence for political affairs at Millersville University, said that judicial elections are challenging because the candidates typically don’t have the resources to campaign enough to reach many voters and voters have little information with which to make their decisions.
“Most of them don’t have the money to run campaigns and they are not allowed to talk about issues that come before the court. They can talk about their experience, they can talk about their philosophy. Occasionally, some Supreme Court candidates have a little presence,” Madonna said. “This year, I don’t know. It’s tough because these are really important positions,” he said.
As a county judge, Patrick has not handed down high-profile statewide decisions like the other two judges seeking the Republican nomination. McCullough and Brobson have both been involved in high-profile cases.
McCullough last year sided with Republicans who sought to stop the certification of the state’s election. McCullough ordered the state to stop its certification process due to a challenge filed by U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler County, and other Republicans.
In that order, McCullough said that the Republicans had “established a likelihood to succeed on the merits” in their legal challenge by arguing that the state’s General Assembly, which has Republican majorities in both chambers, had illegally expanded mail-in voting through legislation rather than by amending the Constitution.
The state Supreme Court overruled her three days later.
Brobson in 2017 heard arguments in what would become a landmark gerrymandering case. Brobson ruled that evidence in the case showed that the state’s Congressional maps were gerrymandered but he found that there wasn’t proof that the gerrymandering was bad enough to be illegal.
“A lot can be said about the 2011 Plan (redrawing the state’s Congressional maps) much of which is unflattering but justified,” Brobson wrote. “Petitioners, however, have failed to meet their burden of proving that the 2011 Plan, as a piece of legislation, clearly, plainly and palpably violates the Pennsylvania Constitution. For the judiciary, this should be the end of the inquiry,” he wrote.
The Supreme Court overruled him and in 2018, the Supreme Court justices redrew the state’s congressional maps. Before the court redrew the maps, Republicans held 13 of the state’s 18 congressional seats even though Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the state.