Conservatives can’t hope to expand the GOP’s two-justice minority on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court this November, for only one seat is up for election — that of retiring Republican Justice Thomas G. Saylor. But right-of-center voters concerned about the state’s judiciary don’t lack reasons to show up and vote. 

Foremost, conservatives have been displeased with the court for at least a decade, and worry that the situation will worsen. Even when Republicans held a four-to-three majority in 2012, four justices, including then Chief Justice Ronald Castille (R), ordered the state’s GOP-controlled General Assembly to revise state legislative maps it had redrawn the prior year. The court ruled that the redistricting plan approved in 2011 created some insufficiently compact districts and split too many municipalities between districts. 

To right-leaning Pennsylvanians, that was a mild irritant compared with what a Democrat-controlled court would do in Jan. 2018. 

In response to a challenge filed by the League of Women Voters against the congressional districts that state lawmakers had passed six years prior, a majority of justices not only ruled that the districts were gerrymandered to advantage Republicans, but imposed their own new map — one much more agreeable to Democrats. Because the Pennsylvania Constitution tasks a Legislative Reapportionment Commission formed by state lawmakers with creating new districts, the state Supreme Court’s critics saw its order as a partisan arrogation of power.

Ever since Democrats gained a five-to-two majority on Pennsylvania’s highest judicial body in 2015, the court has given progressives a number of other momentous victories. It upheld an executive order by Gov. Tom Wolf (D) establishing de facto union representation for home-care workers. The court also resurrected a 2014 lawsuit by several school districts demanding more state funding.

READ MORE — The Broad + Liberty report Redistricting in Pennsylvania: The Past, Present + Future

Also upsetting to many in the Keystone State has been the cluster of election-related decisions issued last fall that extended the deadline by which mail-in ballots would be accepted beyond state statute, permitted submission of ballots via drop-boxes, and jettisoned the Green Party presidential candidate from the ballot.

And many didn’t take kindly to the Democratic justices affirming the restrictions that Governor Wolf imposed in reaction to Covid-19. This May, Pennsylvanians approved two constitutional amendments to restrain the governor’s emergency powers.

“The court unfortunately seems to issue rulings that don’t uphold the rule of law but are instead ideologically driven,” Gina Diorio, public affairs director for the pro-free-enterprise Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, told Broad + Liberty. 

How did the court’s partisan makeup shift so decisively in the Democrats’ direction? 

Prominent Philadelphia public-affairs executive Larry Ceisler said state GOP officials got complacent in 2015. Judicial-election victories used to come easily to Republicans because their voters reliably showed up for non-presidential and non-gubernatorial races. But Democrats outworked and outspent their opponents, Ceisler observed, gaining seats on the state Supreme, Commonwealth, and Superior courts.

“Republicans forgot that they usually win these off-year races and they ignored the significance of having three open seats on the Supreme Court,” he said. “So, the Democrats were very concerted in getting a well-balanced and qualified ticket that they backed up with their fundraising and their campaign abilities.” 

Himself a moderate Democrat, Ceisler said he doesn’t see the current court’s recent behavior as rigidly partisan. He noted for example that both a 2018 decision upholding Philadelphia’s soda tax and that ruling’s dissenting opinion were bipartisan. (Ceisler himself worked as a spokesperson for a coalition opposing the tax.) He furthermore described the congressional maps the majority nixed in 2018 as “ridiculous” for the extent to which they were designed to preserve GOP occupancy. 

‘Republicans forgot that they usually win these off-year races and they ignored the significance of having three open seats on the Supreme Court.’

On that matter, Diorio said that while the Supreme Court may properly decide whether a congressional district conforms to state law, it cannot assume the role of redrawing districts itself. 

Her organization is enthusiastically backing Republican Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson’s bid for state Supreme Court against Democrat Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin. Diorio said Brobson’s record demonstrates “a commitment to upholding the rule of law as it is written.”

The organization has also endorsed Republicans Megan Sullivan, Stacy Wallace, and J. Andrew Crompton for state judgeships this year. Sullivan, a litigator who has served as a deputy state attorney general, is running for Superior Court against Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Timika Lane (D). Crompton, a Commonwealth Court Judge, and Wallace, the current McKean County Bar Association president, are seeking the two Commonwealth Court seats up this year. Their Democratic opponents are Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Lori A. Dumas and Allegheny County Judge David Spurgeon. 

As tough as it is to anticipate who will prevail this year, Ceisler said, he doesn’t believe Democrats are assured to benefit from the same GOP unreadiness that was apparent in 2015 or the anger at President Trump that helped Democrats in subsequent judicial campaigns. Ceisler also suggested independent expenditures by right-leaning associations, particularly Commonwealth Partners, should be a major asset to Republican candidates in 2021. The organization’s political action committee spent well over $1 million during this spring’s primary season and Ceisler anticipates the group’s spending will be robust this fall as well. Ultimately, though, he suggested momentum could end up in either party’s favor in the days leading up to Nov. 2, depending on the public mood.

“I would be very surprised if there’s not a sweep by one party,” he said. “You just have to remember, traditionally, the Republicans have had majorities on most of these courts because of the nature of voting patterns in off-year elections.”

Bradley Vasoli is president of Hill Media Strategies and a writer at The Star News Network.

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