Pennsylvania’s political landscape looks a bit more favorable to Democrats after a three-for-three sweep in the Supreme Court election last week, giving the party a 5-2 advantage on the panel—a sharp turn to the left for a court that has been primarily controlled by Republicans for decades. But beyond the implications for party politics in the commonwealth, it’s the highly politicized and vicious nature of the election that’s raising eyebrows.
The race topped the record for the most expensive judicial election in U.S. history, coming out at about $15.8 million—a tally likely to rise as final numbers are calculated. It’s hard to ignore anything with that high a price tag, but when it’s the cost of choosing judges that will resolve questions impacting millions of citizens, things tend to get even dicier. Pennsylvania was the theater for the record-breaking spectacle this year, but it provokes questions about where money might influence the system next—and at what cost to judicial virtue?
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which antedates the United States Supreme Court, was once one of the most respected state-level courts in the country. It could strike down Pennsylvania’s laws long before Marbury v. Madison established the power of judicial review at the federal level. But by the late 1970s, according to David Rudovsky, a senior fellow at Penn Law School, it had become highly politicized and ideological as a result of competitive and nasty election cycles. Now, Rudovsky told me, “it’s a court in total turmoil.”