TEAM SUPPORT—Judge Dwayne Woodruff surrounded by former teammates of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Art Rooney II. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) _ Races for appellate court seats, the only statewide contests on the ballot in the Pennsylvania primary this month, are often derided as low-information contests, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Election experts say voters can find themselves making decisions on factors such as the candidates’ position on the ballot, the county where they live, their gender or the sound of their surname.

For those looking for a better approach, one place to start is information published by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts , an advocacy group that describes itself as a nonpartisan organization working to ensure that the state has “qualified, fair and impartial judges.”

Many of the 10 men and eight women running in the May 16 primary for four open seats on Superior Court and two on Commonwealth Court were eager to suggest how voters should evaluate the field.

“First of all, the professional merit of the candidate _ is the candidate qualified to do the job?” said Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Carolyn Nichols, one of five Democrats running for Superior Court. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing, that’s kind of Step 1. Step 2, you want a judge who has integrity and is fair.”

Blair County Common Pleas Court Judge Wade Kagarise, one of five Republicans on the Superior Court primary ballot, said bar associations and the political parties are good sources for voters looking for opinions and recommendations about the candidates.

“If somebody has a lousy temperament or bad ethics, that’s usually something that’s going to come out in an investigation by the bar association or it’s going to be raised as an issue, perhaps, in news stories,” Kagarise said.

Superior Court candidate Craig Stedman, Lancaster County’s elected Republican district attorney, described the state bar association ratings process as rigorous and involving a detailed questionnaire and interviews of people he’s worked with.

“They questioned me for an hour and 15 minutes,” Stedman said. “I thought it was very fair and very extensive.”

Superior Court handles criminal, civil and family court appeals from counties, making for a very busy docket.

“It demands that a judge that sits on Superior Court would have a great level of experience as relates to not only trial work, but also writing opinions,” said Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick, a Republican candidate. “You would want a judge who has extensive experience in all types of cases, not just one type of case.”

Along with Nichols, the Democratic candidates are Superior Court Judge Geoff Moulton, who was appointed last year and wants to stay on the court; Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Maria McLaughlin; Beaver County Common Pleas Court Judge Deborah Anne Kunselman; and lawyer and former prosecutor Bill Kaye, of Allegheny County.

The other Republicans besides Stedman, Patrick and Kagarise are Northampton County Common Pleas Court Judge Emil Giordano and Mary Murray, a district judge in Allegheny County.

Commonwealth Court fields matters involving governmental bodies and agencies, and can be the trial court for cases in which the state is a party.

Only two Republicans are on the primary docket for the two openings, Delaware County Common Pleas Court Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon and Pittsburgh lawyer Paul Lalley.

For that court, the primary race is on the Democratic side, where six are competing for the party’s two spots on the fall ballot.

Commonwealth Court Judge Joe Cosgrove, a Democrat appointed last year to fill a vacancy on the bench who wants to keep the job on a permanent basis, said motivated voters can research his opinions online.

“I know that requires some work, but I do have that record,” Cosgrove said. “So I’m doing that job.”

Labor attorney Todd Eagen, running for the Democratic nomination, argued a key qualification is experience in the Commonwealth Court itself.

“It’s what type of law and what type of experience the candidates have as lawyers,” Eagen said.

The candidates’ own websites and social media accounts also provide clues about them and their work, said Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Ellen Ceisler, running for Commonwealth Court.

“You end up having some pretty goofy pictures when you end up eating foods in different towns,” she said.

Other Democrats seeking Commonwealth Court nominations are state Rep. Bryan Barbin of Cambria County and Pittsburgh lawyers Timothy Barry and Irene McLaughlin Clark.

In the fall, the most high-profile race will be for the state Supreme Court, which has a 5-2 Democratic majority following a three-seat sweep by the Democrats in the 2015 election. This year each party has just one candidate running in the primary. Republican Sallie Mundy is seeking a seat on a permanent basis after being appointed to fill a vacancy last year. She will face off in November against Democrat Dwayne Woodruff, an Allegheny County judge best known as a former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback.

 

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