PENNSYLVANIA — Election Day, November 7, will be here before we know it. At stake this year is the future makeup of the PA Supreme Court, the Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court. These …
PENNSYLVANIA — Election Day, November 7, will be here before we know it. At stake this year is the future makeup of the PA Supreme Court, the Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court. These courts’ justices are tasked with making weighty decisions regarding voting laws, redistricting, gun control, abortion and other hot-button issues. Additionally, when the state legislature and governor are unable to come to compromises on issues—something that happens quite frequently these days—the courts are often looked to arbitrate.
At the local level, a slew of seats—including the county commissioners, district attorney, sheriff, township, borough, and school board officials—will be voted on as well.
While these election years—wedged between and perhaps overshadowed by higher profile presidential, congressional and gubernatorial races—tend to bring in a smaller turnout from the electorate, the winners can go on to make some of the most impactful decisions in residents’ everyday lives.
Here’s what you need to know before Election Day comes.
Voters will choose between two candidates who will become the newest justice on the state’s highest court. Appearing on the ballot are Democrat Daniel McCaffery and Republican Carolyn Carluccio.
The court is currently made up of four Democrats and two Republicans, so this year’s election will not alter which party controls the court. However, all four of those Democrats will face retention votes or reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 by 2027—giving Republicans an opportunity to flip control in the coming years.
Both candidates come “highly recommended” by the Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA). On the issue of reproductive rights, anti-abortion activists have endorsed Carluccio—who has taken a strong stance on the issue, but suggested that those decisions are best left to the governor and legislature.
Meanwhile, groups like Planned Parenthood Votes have urged voters to choose McCaffery, who said in an interview with Politico, “It’s pretty clear from a personal standpoint that I believe those particular issues are best decided between a woman, her conscience and her doctor.”
Below the state’s Supreme Court, two intermediate appellate courts–Commonwealth and Superior—are the next highest ranked in PA. These judges serve 10-year terms with no term limits, but a mandatory retirement age of 75.
The nine-member Commonwealth Court—which has weighed in on issues ranging from gun control to education funding—has just one open seat this year. The partisan makeup is currently five Republicans to three Democrats.
Running on the Democratic side, Matt Wolf has served as a judge on the Philadelphia Municipal Court since 2017 and hears both civil and criminal cases. He said that as a judge he refrains from judicial activism, which he called “not productive.”
Opposing Wolf, Republican candidate Megan Martin is a former parliamentarian of the state Senate, where she advised the PA Senate’s presiding officer on how to run floor proceedings. She has described herself as a “textualist and originalist,” saying, “I do not believe the constitution is a ‘living document.’”
Judges on the Superior Court have the power to determine the outcome appeals in high-profile criminal and civil cases from the Courts of Common Pleas. Its decisions can shape precedent for how future criminal justice cases are decided in lower courts. Two Republicans and two Democrats are running to fill two vacant seats.
On the Democratic side, Jill Beck, an attorney from Pittsburgh, has worked as clerk on both the state’s Supreme and Superior courts from 2010 to 2019—during which she said she drafted more than 500 opinions. PBA rated Beck as “highly recommended” and wrote that she possesses “the highest combination of legal ability, experience and integrity.”
The other Democrat in the running is Timika Lane, a judge on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. During the primaries, Lane described her courtroom as a safe space for “people to tell their truth” and said she strives to make everyone who appears in court feel treated with respect. PBA rated her as “highly recommended.”
Republican Maria Battista served as assistant general counsel for the health and state departments under Govs. Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf. She was also a contract specialist for the Department of Defense. PBA has not recommended Battista, since she declined to participate in its evaluation process.
The other Republican candidate is Harry Smail, a Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas judge since 2014. In 2020, he ordered his county’s election board to throw out more than 200 provisional ballots cast by residents who were incorrectly told by election workers that they needed to sign their precincts’ poll books—raising concerns that these people voted twice. The state GOP has applauded Smails’ judicial decisions in 2020 “that upheld essential anti-fraud requirements for casting a mail-in ballot.” The PBA rated Smail as “recommended.”
The River Reporter will be digging deeper into the local races in the coming weeks. Many candidates for offices at the county level are running uncontested in Wayne and Pike counties. In both counties, however, the commissioners will face a challenger. In Wayne, commissioners Brian Smith (Republican), Jocelyn Cramer (Democrat) and James Shook (Republican) are running to stay in office with a challenge from Hawley councilor Michael Dougherty (Democrat).
In Pike, commissioners Matthew Osterberg (Republican), Ronald Schmalzle (Republican) and Anthony Waldron (Democrat) are running to stay in office, with a challenge from Christa Caceres (Democrat).
October 23—Last day to register before Election Day
October 31—Last day to apply for an absentee and mail-in ballot
November 7—Election Day, and the last day for county boards of elections to receive voted mail-in and civilian absentee ballots. Ballots must be received by 8 p.m.
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