High Priority: Why your choice for the Pa. Supreme Court may be the most important vote you cast all year | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

High Priority: Why your choice for the Pa. Supreme Court may be the most important vote you cast all year

"It's probably going to have the biggest long-term impact of any race out there."

On a particularly cold morning last week, more than 50 people filled the gallery of the Allegheny County Courthouse where Common Pleas Judge Dwayne Woodruff announced his plans to run for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers (Woodruff's old teammates) stood shoulder-to-shoulder with local lawyers and politicians. Others pushed their way to the front, vying for prime spots to take pictures with their smartphones.

"I've never seen this many people come out for a Supreme Court announcement," said Shawn Flaherty, Woodruff's former law partner.

But, unlike the packed announcement last week, state Supreme Court elections tend to have low turnouts. In 2009, the most recent Supreme Court election, a little more than 215,000 votes were cast in Allegheny County. That's fewer than one-third of the county's registered voters.

"One of the reasons for that is other elections are more glamorous," says Sam Hens-Greco, chair of the 14th Ward Democratic Committee. "Court elections are sort of mysterious. If people knew the impact [the Supreme Court has], we'd probably have a greater turnout."

And that might just happen this year. For the first time in the state's history, there are three seats up for grabs, and a dozen candidates have already jumped into the race.

"It's probably going to have the biggest long-term impact of any race out there," says Hens-Greco, whose 14th Ward committee is planning a candidate forum at Chatham University on Jan. 25, with all candidates scheduled to appear. "It's rare that you get three seats open in one year. The three people who get elected will probably be sitting on the bench for some very important decisions."

Pennsylvania and Illinois are the only two states with Supreme Court races this year. Analysts say this, combined with scandals involving the court in recent years, will bring national attention to the state race.

High Priority: Why your choice for the Pa. Supreme Court may be the most important vote you cast all year
The Allegheny County Courthouse gallery was filled for Judge Woodruff's announcement

"Because the court has been in the news so much lately, unfortunately in a negative way, perhaps there will be more attention brought to this race," says Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a court watchdog organization. "It also most likely will gain national attention. Chances are, national political parties and interest groups will be following it and pouring in lots of money."

Jurists chosen in the 2015 election will be set to preside over some of the most important cases of this generation, analysts say. But getting voters excited about Supreme Court races, when many still don't understand what the judges do, could continue to pose a challenge.

"It's going to face future controversies involving the Marcellus Shale boom, the right to vote, the right to clean air and clean water, the rights of people to face a jury of their peers," says Superior Court Judge David Wecht, one of the candidates. "When the legislative branches of government are in gridlock like they are now, most disputes of great conflict end up in the court, and the Supreme Court is the court of last resort."

The recent controversy surrounding Pennsylvania's Supreme Court began in 2012 when former Justice Joan Orie Melvin was indicted for using legislative and judicial staff for campaign work. She was convicted following her trial, in 2013, and sentenced to three years' house arrest.

Then, last year, Justice Seamus McCaffery resigned after he was linked to the statewide pornographic email scandal. McCaffrey was just one of several dozen state officials and employees who used the state's email system to exchange the inappropriate missives.

These two incidents and the retirement earlier this month of Justice Ronald Castille have led to the court's three vacancies.

"The Supreme Court does not enjoy a good reputation," says state Superior Court Judge Anne Lazarus, another candidate. "A number of its members have left under somewhat dubious circumstances. No matter who is lucky enough to be awarded an opinion on the court, our Supreme Court should be one of integrity."

In addition to bringing attention to the upcoming election, the state Supreme Court's poor reputation is also what drew candidates like Lazarus and Woodruff.

"We need to make sure that doesn't happen again," says Woodruff, who was elected to the Court of Common Pleas in 2005. "I want to influence the court toward integrity and justice."

Another reason so many candidates have joined the race is a pending constitutional amendment to raise the Supreme Court retirement age from 70 to 75. The amendment could be decided on referendum in 2015 or 2016. If it passes, it might be a long time before another seat opens up, and the judges elected this year could serve on the bench for decades.

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