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Voting for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Nov. 3 might be the most important ballot you cast

“By making sure we install a more liberal-minded court, we can at least give ourselves a fighting chance.”

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Video by Charlie Deitch & Ashley Murray

I don’t need a crystal ball or tarot cards or the prognostication powers of Karl Rove to know that voter turnout for the Nov. 3 General Election will be low.

This is a municipal primary filled with town-council candidates from far-flung communities and judicial races, which never draw voters in droves. I’m probably guilty myself of feeling underwhelmed about voting. In fact, I’ve written more this year about 2016 U.S. Senate and Congressional races than I have about the upcoming election.

Well, I’m an idiot. We get so wrapped up in national elections that we fail to recognize that the most important vote that we’ll cast probably in the next 20 years is happening in less than two weeks. Because in a way, the three open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will likely have more direct impact on your life than whom we choose to be the next president (although I’m still not voting for Donald Trump).

PHOTOS BY THEO SCHWARZ
  • Photos by Theo Schwarz

The problem — and we lampooned the notion on this week’s cover — is that there is a feeling that judge’s races don’t really affect our lives, that they’re not “sexy.” Nothing could be further from the truth; just look at how we got into this situation in the first place.

There was supposed to be only one opening in this year’s election: Former Chief Justice Ronald Castille reached mandatory retirement age last year. But misconduct in office has a way of quickly thinning the herd. Former Justice Joan Orie Melvin was convicted of using state employees who worked for her also-convicted sister and former state Rep. Jane Orie to work on her campaign. And then last year, Justice Seamus McCaffrey was forced to resign after he was implicated in the state pornographic email scandal — a scandal that’s likely to claim another justice before it’s all over.

So what we have on Nov. 3 are three Democrats — David Wecht, Christine Donohue and Kevin Dougherty; three Republicans — Anne Covey, Michael George and Judith Olson; and an independent (and former Republican) — Paul Panepinto. We’ve written several stories about this race, and this column isn’t about explaining the virtues of these judges. The fact is, candidates for judge aren’t supposed to tell you where they stand on certain issues, especially social issues, because once they put on that robe and take that seat they must follow the law and leave politics at the door.

Yeah, I think that’s pretty much a load of crap, too. I think on a great number of legal issues, judges do follow the law. But let’s be honest, if that were the case there wouldn’t have been a dissenting opinion on an issue like same-sex marriage. Judges are people, and people who run for office are political. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that still runs judicial elections as a partisan competition. 

I’m not going to argue whether that’s right or wrong. That’s the reality of the situation. And, quite, frankly, I’ll be making my decision in this race based on political ideology. Why? Because social issues like body sovereignty, minimum wage and gun control, and political issues like redistricting, are the ones where politics come into play. For progressive, liberal-minded folks, this is a chance to swing the Supreme Court our way. A chance like this likely won’t come around again for a very long time, if ever. 

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that all Democrats I vote for will be as socially liberal as I am, and that they will vote the way I think they should all of the time. But by installing a more liberal-minded court, we can at least give ourselves a fighting chance. Let’s look at some issues where this could come into play.

Despite watching what seems like a school shooting a week, we still haven’t advanced any form of common-sense gun-control. Many municipalities, like Pittsburgh, have tried, only to be turned back by the courts and the legislature. In fact, municipalities have attempted to fight many social injustices that the state legislature has ignored. Issues like paid sick leave and any attempt to locally raise the minimum wage will all eventually end up at the state’s high court.

And speaking of the legislature, if Democrats ever have a shot of gaining control in Harrisburg, the first step is Nov. 3. This state has some of the most ridiculously gerrymandered districts in the nation. The boundaries are drawn in such a way to give Republicans the edge. Do you really think Jim Ferlo would have retired if his senate district had remained untouched? Instead, his urban district, with a large number of African-American voters, was butchered and joined with a predominantly white district in the North Hills. The same holds true for Pittsburgh’s Congressional district. Need proof? Check out the 12th District that stretches from the Ohio border to Johnstown.

As other media have pointed out, the state Supreme Court appoints the tie-breaking member to the state’s redistricting committee. Anyone want to guess which party got that power under the Republican-controlled Supreme Court?

We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines for this judicial election. If you still can’t grasp what’s at stake on Nov. 3, think of a vote for the Supreme Court as a vote on gun control, a vote in favor of gender equality, a vote on women’s health issues, or even an early vote for your state and congressional representatives in 2021 and beyond. Because voting in this race now may be the last vote you control for an awfully long time.

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