A voter guide to Pennsylvania’s 2021 judicial elections

Bizar Male

The Pa. Superior Court: What is it? Who’s running?

Let’s face it: Campaigns for Pennsylvania Superior Court judge aren’t exactly glamorous. Voters often pay little attention to such races, and seeking one of the statewide appellate court’s 15 seats is about as exciting as running for county judge, only with steeper turnpike tolls.

Whoever wins a 10-year term to fill the lone vacancy on the Pa. Superior Court may not get a lot of press coverage, but they will play a huge part in how justice is carried out across the commonwealth.

“It’s the busiest appellate court in the country. It handles over 8,000 cases a year,” Gross said. “And it is a court of last resort in many cases because the Supreme Court has discretion to take a case or not, but the Superior Court doesn’t have that choice.”

Superior Court judges, usually seated in three-judge panels, hear appeals from criminal, family, and civil cases handled by county courts of common pleas. Most of the job involves workaday reviews of those lower-court decisions, and even rulings that set a precedent may not last: The state Supreme Court can take up appeals of Superior Court rulings, though it doesn’t often choose to do so.

As Superior Court Judge Susan Gantman prepares to retire, three candidates seeking to replace her are set to appear on the Democratic primary ballot:

  • Jill L. Beck, a Pittsburgh civil litigator who has worked with at-risk children in Allegheny County’s family court system, then clerked for Justice Christine Donahue in the Superior and state Supreme Court.
  • Timika R. Lane, a Common Pleas Court Judge who handles criminal matters in Philadelphia. She previously worked in the Public Defender’s office and practiced family law as a private attorney.
  • Bryan S. Neft, of Mt. Lebanon, whose background in commercial litigation includes work for health care giant UPMC, previously clerked for Superior Court Judge William Cercone.

The winner will likely face the lone Republican in the race, Megan Sullivan, who prosecuted child abuse cases for the Chester County District Attorney’s office and later focused on insurance fraud as a Deputy Attorney General for the state.

Beck, Lane, and Neft have all received “recommended” ratings from the state Bar Association. Sullivan has not yet received a rating.

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts held a livestreamed forum Tuesday that offered more on the candidates’ thinking.

Campaign finance reports in this year’s race are spotty, and candidates most often receive support from fellow lawyers. But Sullivan received $10,000 from a school choice group, while Lane has received $70,000 from a number of unions. Gross, of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, says that judges “shouldn’t be influenced” by such money, but “it’s something you can take into consideration.”

But, she adds, “I honestly think most candidates who run for judge would prefer to not be involved in politics. I’ve heard candidates and judges say, ‘If I had known the craziness of campaigning for judge, I never would have done it.’

What are some noteworthy decisions by the Pa. Superior Court in recent years?

The Pa. Superior court can be a “farm team” for the state’s top tribunal: Five of Pennsylvania’s seven current Supreme Court justices served on Superior Court first. And the lower court’s rulings can make headlines while making law.

In 2019, for example, a unanimous Superior Court ruling tossed out a drug- and gun-related conviction of Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, due to concerns about the reliability of a police officer involved in making the case. Charges against the rapper, who’d been on probation or behind bars for more than a decade, were later dropped after he pled guilty to a misdemeanor.

That same year, a Superior Court panel opened the door to extending the statute of limitations in some years-old cases of alleged sexual abuse by Catholic priests. That opinion is being reviewed by state Supreme Court justices.

Just last month, a Superior Court ruling that could expand financial liability for businesses in civil disputes has raised alarm in the corporate community, with business groups asking for a chance to reargue the case before a larger panel of judges.

The Pa. Commonwealth Court: What is it? Who’s running?

Pennsylvania is one of only a handful of states that has two separate intermediate-level appeals courts, with the Commonwealth Court operating alongside the Superior.

This nine-judge body decides civil disputes involving the state itself and hears appeals against decisions made by state agencies. Cases usually come before a three-judge panel in either Harrisburg, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh, and as in the other appellate courts, judges are elected to 10-year terms.

Voters will be asked to fill two open seats on the court this year, which will mean the two top vote-getters from each party move through the primary election, and then the two overall winners make it to the bench.

One of the seats is being vacated by Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, who is not running for retention. The other, notably, involves incumbent Judge Andrew Crompton, who was appointed to the court by Gov. Tom Wolf to fill a vacancy in 2019. Crompton, a former top GOP aide in the statehouse, is running to keep the seat.

All told, there are six candidates in the running — two Republicans and four Democrats:

  • Crompton, the incumbent, is a Harrisburg area Republican who, unlike most judicial hopefuls, has an explicitly political background. He spent 26 years working for the Senate, and most recently was former Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati’s right-hand man, serving as chief of staff and caucus counsel. Crompton played a key role in Republicans’ efforts to overturn the state Supreme Court’s 2018 congressional map redrawing. Among other things, he helped draft the Senate’s unsuccessful attempt to appeal the map to the U.S Supreme Court.
  • Stacy Wallace, a Bradford attorney running as a Republican, who her local newspaper describes as a small business owner and president of the McKean County Bar Association.
  • Lori Dumas, a Democrat who has been on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas for more than 18 years, primarily in the juvenile division.
  • Sierra Street, a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge running as a Democrat, who previously worked as a hearing officer in Philadelphia Family Court, and as a trial attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, among other nonprofit work.
  • Amanda Green-Hawkins, a Pittsburgh attorney and two-time Democratic Allegheny County Council member who also works as assistant general counsel for United Steelworkers.
  • David Spurgeon, a Democrat who serves on the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, and before that served for nearly two decades as assistant district attorney, and then deputy district attorney for the county.

Spurgeon received a “highly recommended” rating from the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which said he “displayed confidence, integrity, and excellent judicial temperament” in his interview with the group.

The rest of the candidates were “recommended,” save Wallace, who the group said “lacks the depth and breadth of experience and preparation necessary to take on the commanding role of judge,” and Green-Hawkins, whom it did not rate.

What are some noteworthy decisions by the Pa. Commonwealth Court in recent years?

Seven of the nine sitting judges on the court currently were elected as Republicans. And in the last year, the court notably handed the Trump campaign and other 2020 election challengers some of their only legal wins, though the Pennsylvania Supreme Court eventually overturned those decisions.

One of those noteworthy rulings came from McCullough, the Supreme Court candidate, who ordered state officials to stop the vote certification process in late November. She agreed with lead plaintiff and Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly that Pennsylvania’s no-excuse mail-in voting provision violated its own constitution, despite the fact that the state legislature had approved that rule as part of a package of voter law changes in 2019, and the legislation received wide support from the Republican majority.

Around the same time, Brobson, McCullough’s fellow Commonwealth Court judge and now Supreme Court candidate, ruled that around 2,300 mail ballots cast in the 45th Senate District race should not be counted because they lacked handwritten dates. The Pa. Senate later relied on that decision when it refused to seat the declared winner in that race, Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny County).

That ruling was ultimately overturned by the Pa. Supreme Court as well, which wrote that technical violations of the Election Code like missing dates “do not warrant the wholesale disenfranchisement of thousands of Pennsylvania voters.”

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