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HARRISBURG – Unions, lawyers and a political committee linked to a billionaire school choice advocate are backing the increasingly controversial race for a place in Pennsylvania’s highest court.

Democrat Maria McLaughlin has raised nearly $ 2.7 million this year, including $ 1.8 million from a group of Philadelphia criminal and civil lawyers and unions representing teachers, truck drivers and the police, according to campaign finance reports filed last week.

Republican Kevin Brobson received the majority of his $ 2.8 million from just one political action committee: the conservative Commonwealth Leaders Fund. The group receives much of its financial backing from PACs associated with Jeffrey Yass, the billionaire from suburban Philadelphia who owns a financial and tech firm who has spent millions over the years to provide tuition vouchers to children of the poorest performing neighborhoods.

The flow of dollars into a run off year underscores the importance of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which has been the final arbiter in recent years of high-stakes, highly partisan disputes surrounding elections and redistribution.

The November 2 election to replace incumbent judge Thomas Saylor, a Republican, will not change the balance of power on the bench, where Democrats currently hold five of seven seats. But the new justice will have a role to play in the cases accepted by the court and will rule on important issues in the coming months, including one that could change the way the state funds its poorer school districts.

Large-scale donations to both campaigns also highlight the state’s lax funding rules, which place no limits on contributions, allowing individuals with deep pockets and PACs to influence election results. Pennsylvania is one of the few states to elect justices of appellate courts, including Supreme Court justices, through partisan races.

“As a country, we don’t appreciate the importance of state supreme courts,” said Bruce Ledewitz, Duquesne University law professor and Pennsylvania High Court expert. “They are much more important to our day-to-day decision-making than the United States Supreme Court.”

In recent years, the state Supreme Court has rejected the Pennsylvania congressional map, upheld Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s restrictions on the coronavirus pandemic, and ruled on contentious issues regarding the United States’ postal voting law. State.

It is possible that the next congressional and state legislative maps will eventually end up in the High Court.

Campaign finance reports due Oct. 22 show the two candidates have raised most of their money – over $ 1 million each – in the past two months alone. McLaughlin has raised $ 1.3 million in direct and in-kind contributions since mid-September, while Bobson has brought in $ 1.5 million.

Overall, McLaughlin, a longtime prosecutor who is now a state Superior Court judge, has brought in more than $ 900,000 from unions since the start of the year. The Supreme Court has, in recent years, weighed in on labor cases with far-reaching effects on workers and employers, including one that required workers to be compensated for time spent at security checks in warehouses. ‘Amazon.

The main donations came from the local chapter of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers of Philadelphia and the United Association. Two teachers ‘unions, the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the Philadelphia Teachers’ Federation, donated an additional $ 60,000 combined.

The Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, a group of civil and criminal litigation lawyers, donated $ 850,000 through their Better Tomorrow Committee, while Fairness PA injected an additional $ 50,000 into McLaughlin’s campaign. The latter fueled Wolf’s bid for re-election in 2018, but later became a source of controversy for the governor for garnering the support of doctors and lawyers seeking to indirectly oppose the limits on the amount that pharmacies may charge for insurance.

McLaughlin’s biggest individual donor this year: Neil T. O’Donnell, a personal injury lawyer based in Luzerne County. She also received support from the state Democratic Party, which spent approximately $ 272,000 on the creation and distribution of campaign materials; and the former PAC of former Philadelphia Controller Jonathan Saidel, Bridge Across Pennsylvania, who paid for billboards valued at $ 23,780. Saidel is married to McLaughlin.

McLaughlin’s campaign manager Celeste Dee said large donations from interest groups have no bearing on how she chairs.

“It’s just not who she is,” Dee said. “His criminal record shows it. She has been practicing as a lawyer for 29 years. If it was, I think you would have seen it before.

Brobson, currently a Commonwealth Court judge, received the majority of his campaign money from the Commonwealth Leaders Fund, a political action committee associated with longtime Conservative strategist Matt Brouillette.

The Commonwealth Leaders Fund this year received the majority of its money from a related PAC called the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund. The latter gets much of his money from another PAC associated with Yass.

In an email, Brouillette – the former head of the libertarian-leaning Commonwealth Foundation think tank – said the PAC invested in Brobson’s campaign because “we care about our courts because they have vested interests in them. have turned into a super-legislature to advance a preferred policy. program that hurts families, taxpayers and job creators across Pennsylvania.

When asked if Commonwealth leaders equated to a special interest group, given that so much of its funding goes to a single donor with a well-publicized cause, Brouillette replied: “Our special interest is equality before the law for all, and favor for none. “

Brobson’s campaign did not return a phone call or respond to a text message asking for comment.

Most of the nearly $ 1.9 million Brobson received from the Commonwealth Leaders Fund was in the form of in-kind donations – those for goods or services, rather than direct financial donations – for costs of “production” and “Digital media” unspecified.

Brobson also received large donations from the state Republican Party, which contributed $ 504,000; and Bob Asher, a Montgomery County candy maker and, until last year, a veteran member of the Republican National Committee, who, with his PAC, contributed $ 85,000. Bobson’s wife Lauren Brobson also loaned $ 20,000 to his campaign.

Brobson’s campaign has also benefited from significant independent spending, or money spent by groups that want to influence an election but are not allowed to coordinate with a candidate’s campaign.

The Republican State National Steering Committee’s judicial fairness initiative, for example, spent just over $ 152,500 on Brobson’s behalf. The Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce and Industry separately spent just under $ 192,000. Both groups spent the money on TV commercials.

Recent rulings have made the Supreme Court a target among some Republicans, who argue that judges have tried to legislate from the bench and have taken partisan positions on very sensitive issues. Separately, lawyers outside the legislature have pushed for years to suppress partisan elections and select judges instead on merit – although opponents say campaign funds would simply be transferred to those overseeing appointments.

Within the legislature, several GOP lawmakers in recent months have made proposals to require appeal-level judges to run in district elections, rather than statewide elections, in the aim to give more voting power to the less populated areas of Pennsylvania. Lawmakers passed a resolution to amend the state’s constitution, but did not vote on the second resolution required to put the issue on the ballot for voters to decide.

Such a change could further politicize the courts, Kadida Kenner, executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project and co-chair of Why Courts Matter-PA, said during a panel on court races hosted by Spotlight PA.

“The future of the courts is now in the hands of the Pennsylvanians,” she said. “As long as we can continue to vote in judicial elections in record numbers, it is important that we do so, while we continue to vote for our judges.”

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