HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Every year is an election year in Pennsylvania, but 2015 has a quality that’s likely to shake up the usually mundane judicial races: three open seats on the seven-justice state Supreme Court.
A throng of more than a dozen hopefuls, including judges from lower courts and lawyers from outside the judiciary, are lining up – first for the party endorsements in January and February, then in the May 19 primary for the nominations that will be awarded to the top three vote-getters in each party.
The November election will decide which of the six candidates win the three seats – and the 10-year terms that go with them.
The outcome could easily flip the Republican Party’s slim 4-3 majority, and the simultaneous influx of so many new members is bound to change the face of the court in unpredictable ways.
This election will result in “a sea change on the court,” said Lynn Marks, director of judicial reform advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, as the old and new justices strive to restore respectability to a court whose image has been tarnished by scandal and corruption.
A new chief justice, Thomas Saylor, a 17-year veteran of the court was sworn in Tuesday.
Of the three vacancies, the most in the same election year in recent memory, one stems from the retirement of Saylor’s predecessor, Ronald Castille, who stepped down Dec. 31 after reaching the maximum retirement age of 70.
The other two open seats resulted from last year’s resignation of Justice Joan Orie Melvin after her conviction in a public corruption case and Justice Seamus McCaffery’s resignation in October after being implicated in a pornographic email scandal involving employees of the state attorney general’s office.
Democrats who have thrown their hats into the ring include three judges on the Superior Court, one of two mid-level appellate courts: Christine Donohue, Anne Lazarus and David Wecht. Also declaring their candidacy are Jefferson County Judge John Foradora and Allegheny County Judge Dwayne Woodruff, a former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback.
Republicans who have confirmed that they are running include Supreme Court Justice Correale Stevens, who was appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett to complete Melvin’s term, which ends in January 2016, and is seeking to keep the seat for a full 10-year term. The declared candidates also include Superior Court Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen and Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer.
Other possible Republican candidates are less certain.
Superior Court Judge John Bender and Adams County President Judge Michael George both said they will run in the primary if the GOP endorses them at its Jan. 31 meeting; if they are not endorsed, George said he would support the party slate while Bender said he might compete in the primary anyway.
Lawyer Julia Hearthway, secretary of the state Department of Labor and Industry, said she is “certainly exploring” a campaign but that she would not run without the party’s endorsement
There also are two open seats on the intermediate appellate court – one each on the Superior and Commonwealth courts – but those campaigns may be obscured by all the commotion at the top of the ticket.
Peter Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.