Four Pennsylvania appellate court positions are on the primary ballot; meet the candidates | Pittsburgh City Paper

Four Pennsylvania appellate court positions are on the primary ballot; meet the candidates

Voters in Pennsylvania’s May 16 primary election will choose Republican and Democratic nominees for seats on Pennsylvania’s appeals courts, the only statewide races on this year’s ballots.

Chief Justice Max Baer’s death last year caused a vacancy on the state Supreme Court, Pennsylvania’s highest judicial body. 

The Supreme Court hears appeals in cases involving unsettled areas of the law, reviews all death penalty convictions, and has played the decisive role in redrawing Pennsylvania’s congressional districts in recent years. Two Republicans and two Democrats are running for their parties’ respective nominations.

Two seats are up for election on the Superior Court, which hears initial appeals in criminal cases and civil lawsuits. Three Democrats are running for that party’s nomination. Two Republicans are also running.

Two Democrats and two Republicans are seeking nominations to run for one open seat on Commonwealth Court, which hears lawsuits against the state, and appeals of decisions by state and local government agencies. 

Each of the candidates had the opportunity to participate in a review by the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Judicial Evaluation Commission, a panel of lawyers and non-lawyers who rate candidates based on their responses to a questionnaire. The candidates are rated “highly recommended,” “recommended,” or “not recommended.”

Supreme Court

Deborah Anna Kunselman – Democrat

Kunselman has served as a Superior Court Judge since 2018 and was the first woman elected to the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas in 2005.

Superior Court Judge Deborah Anne Kunselman

Before serving as a judge, Kunselman practiced law privately for 13 years, specializing in civil litigation, family law and employment law. Kunselman also served as chief solicitor for Beaver County.

On her campaign website, Kunselman touts her experience in labor law, both as an attorney, representing Beaver County in negotiations with building trade unions and a group of teachers in age discrimination litigation, and as a judge, resolving cases involving police, nurses and other health care workers. 

The Judicial Evaluation Commission said Kunselman’s colleagues describe her experience as vast as a result of her private practice and her time as a judge in Beaver County handling a broad range of cases. The commission rated Kunselman as “highly recommended.”

Daniel D. McCaffery – Democrat

McCaffery has been a Superior Court judge since 2020 and was a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge for five years before that. 

Superior Court Judge Daniel McCaffery

His legal career began in 1991 in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office where he rose to a leadership position in the major crimes unit. After leaving the district attorney’s office in 1996 he worked for a Montgomery County law firm where he became a partner in 2001.

McCaffery joined the U.S. Army at 18, and served on active duty with the First Cavalry Division. He was selected to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point Prep School, according to his campaign website.

McCaffery’s opinions and legal writing are well-reasoned and he has demonstrated a record of community involvement, judicial leadership, and high ethical standards, the evaluation commission said. It rated McCaffery as “highly recommended.” McCaffery is also endorsed by the state Democratic Party.

Patricia A. McCullough – Republican

McCullough has been a Commonwealth Court judge since 2010.

Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough

Before her election, McCullough was an attorney in private practice for 13 years. She was appointed to a position on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in 2005 and served as executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

McCullough previously sought the Republican nomination to run for Supreme Court in 2021. Her candidacy coincided with her husband’s incarceration on charges that he stole money from an elderly client that he then gave to political candidates and his wife’s charity, according to the Associated Press. 

The Judicial Evaluation Commission rated McCullough “not recommended” because she did not participate in the evaluation process.

Carolyn T. Carluccio – Republican

As a Montgomery County Common Pleas Court judge, Carluccio was assigned to criminal, family, civil and juvenile court benches. She was also the first woman elected to be president judge in Montgomery County in 2022.

Montgomery County Judge Carolyn Carluccio

Carluccio began her legal career as an assistant U.S. attorney in Delaware, prosecuting criminal cases including drug trafficking, bank robbery and money laundering. She was also the first woman to serve as chief public defender in Montgomery County, where she oversaw a team of 35 attorneys and staff, her campaign website notes.

The evaluation commission said her colleagues describe her as highly intelligent, energetic, courteous, respectful and fair and noted her opinions are well-reasoned. It rated Carluccio as “highly recommended.” She is endorsed by the state Republican Party.

Superior Court

Jill L. Beck – Democrat

Beck is an attorney practicing in the areas of commercial litigation, discrimination law and appellate matters in the Pittsburgh office of the law firm Blank Rome.

Beck also worked for nine years as a law clerk for Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue and for four years at the Pittsburgh nonprofit KidsVoice, where she represented abused and neglected children in court. Beck said on her campaign website that she chose to work for Blank Rome because of its commitment to providing free legal services to those who cannot afford them. 

The evaluation commission said Beck “possesses the highest combination of legal ability, experience, and integrity.” It rated Beck as “highly recommended.” She is also endorsed by the state Democratic Party.

Timika R. Lane – Democrat

As a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge since 2013, Lane has presided over cases ranging from appeals in criminal cases from the city’s municipal court, criminal trials and investigating grand juries, according to the Judicial Evaluation Commission.

Lane previously spent more than a decade in private practice with a focus on family law. She has also served as a public defender, arbitrator, child advocate and as chief counsel and minority executive director of the Pennsylvania Senate State Government Committee under Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia.

The evaluation commission noted that Lane has demonstrated her commitment to the legal profession by serving as an instructor for lawyers’ continuing education programs and demonstrated her commitment to public service through her involvement in the community. It rated Lane as “highly qualified.” She is also endorsed by the state Democratic Party.

Patrick F. Dugan – Democrat

Dugan has been a Philadelphia Municipal Court judge since 2007, when he was appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell. He was elected president judge in 2019, and has served as a member of the state Supreme Court’s nine-judge Judicial Ethics Advisory Board.

Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Patrick Dugan

Before becoming a lawyer, Dugan served in the U.S. Army as an enlisted airborne infantryman and civil affairs officer in Iraq. After his first tour of duty, Dugan earned his law degree and practiced law for 14 years before returning to the Army as a judge advocate general serving in Afghanistan, according to Dugan’s campaign website.

In 2010, Dugan founded Philadelphia’s veterans court, which handles cases involving former service members who are facing criminal charges, his website says. The evaluation commission said Dugan did not participate in the evaluation process and rated him “not recommended.”

Maria C. Batista – Republican

Battista is an attorney with more than 15 years of experience in civil, criminal and administrative law, according to her campaign

Maria Battista

website. She now works as vice president of federal and state contracts for the Judge Group an international staffing agency that provides business technology consulting, talent, and learning solutions to businesses.

She served as a prosecutor in Franklin and Venango counties and worked for about seven years as a commonwealth attorney in the Pennsylvania Office of General Counsel under former Govs. Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf.

As a commonwealth attorney she provided legal counsel to the state Department of Health and the Department of State, where he also worked as a hearing examiner in disciplinary cases against professional licensees.

Battista did not participate in the Judicial Evaluation Commission review and was rated “not recommended.” She is endorsed by the state Republican Party.

Harry F. Smail – Republican

Westmoreland County Judge Harry Smail

Smail was appointed to the Westmoreland Court of Common Pleas by Corbett in 2014 and elected for a 10-year term the following year. 

As a judge, Smail has presided over complex civil litigation and orphans court. He practiced criminal, civil, employment, and family law privately from 1997 until his appointment to the bench. During that time he also served a court-appointed criminal defense lawyer for indigent defendants in state and federal court and solicitor for two county offices. 

The Judicial Evaluation Commission said Smail is respected and regarded as well-prepared to hear a diverse range of matters in his courtroom. It also noted his involvement in cultural, community and professional organizations. It rated Smail as “recommended.” He is also endorsed by the state Republican Party.

Commonwealth Court

Bryan Neft – Democrat

Bryan Neft

Neft is a lawyer for the Pittsburgh law firm Spilman Thomas & Battle where he defends corporations in asbestos liability litigation and other insurance defense cases. He also handles commercial litigation, shareholder lawsuits and whistleblower lawsuits.

He has worked as a lawyer for 32 years and is licensed in three states in addition to Pennsylvania. Neft worked as a law clerk for a Superior Court judge early in his career drafting opinions on a wide range of civil and criminal cases, according to his website.

The Judicial Evaluation Commission said Neft is respected by his peers as hard working, honest and committed to equal justice, fairness and impartiality in the judicial system. It also noted that Neft has served as a leader in several bar associations and is involved with charitable organizations in his community. It rated Neft as “recommended.” 

Matthew S. Wolf – Democrat

As supervising civil judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court, Wolf guided the court through the pandemic, when Philadelphia’s eviction diversion program helped reduce the number of families facing removal from their homes, his campaign website says.

Matthew Wolf

Wolf began his legal career in 1993 practicing in New Jersey at his father’s law firm for six years before starting his own general law practice. Wolf also practiced personal injury, construction litigation and professional liability law for a Philadelphia law firm.

In 2003, Wolf was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve. He deployed to Iraq as a judge advocate general in 2006 where he served as an adjuster for the U.S. government to pay non-combat personal injury and property damage claims. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 before returning to private practice the following year. 

Before Wolf was elected in 2018, his practice included whistleblower cases and employment litigation including pregnancy discrimination claims. He also represented incarcerated individuals for free in claims that prison officials were indifferent to their medical needs. 

The evaluation commission noted Wolf’s extensive experience and public service and rated him “recommended.”

Megan Martin – Republican

Martin has extensive experience in state government including a decade as secretary-parliamentarian of the Pennsylvania Senate. 

She also held several positions in the Pennsylvania governor’s office under Govs. Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker and Corbett. They included deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison, special assistant to the governor, and special assistant to the general counsel and deputy general counsel.

Martin has also worked as an adjunct professor at Harrisburg Area Community College and Widener University Commonwealth Law School. Martin said she is currently a full-time candidate.

The Judicial Evaluation Commission said Martin’s extensive administrative law experience would serve her well as a Commonwealth Court judge. It rated Martin as “recommended.” Martin is endorsed by the state Republican Party.

Joshua G. Prince – Republican

Since becoming a lawyer in 2009, Prince has built a practice specializing in defending the Second Amendment rights of clients. 

He lists among his most significant cases lawsuits challenging Harrisburg’s local gun laws and the Pennsylvania State Police policy on so-called ghost guns, and seeking the reinstatement of Second Amendment rights for a state trooper and a correctional officer who were barred from possessing firearms because of an involuntary mental health commitment.

Prince was a defendant in a federal lawsuit that resulted in a $5.5 million settlement on behalf of a Delaware man who was paralyzed in 2019 when he was shot in the neck during a firearms training course where Prince was an instructor, according to court records. 

According to court records, another instructor fired a live round during a training exercise when he was supposed to fire a non-lethal paint round. The suit alleged that the instructors and companies conducting the training failed to follow proper procedures to ensure there was no live ammunition in the training facility.

The evaluation commission said that although Prince has appeared in a number of courts and is well regarded by colleagues, Prince “lacks the depth and breadth of experience and preparation necessary to take on the commanding role of judge on the Commonwealth Court. It rated Prince “not recommended.

Peter Hall is a contributor for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.

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