Judicial Campaigns and Elections

According to Canon 7 of Pennsylvania's code of judicial conduct, judicial candidates should not:

  • Make pledges or promises of conduct in office other than the faithful and impartial performance of the duties of the office; make statements that commit or appear to commit them with respect to cases or controversies likely to come before the court; or misrepresent their identity, qualifications, present position, or other facts.
  • Personally solicit or accept campaign funds or solicit publicly stated support. However, candidates may establish committees to secure and manage campaign funds and to obtain public statements of support for the candidates. Candidate committees may not solicit contributions earlier than thirty days prior to the first day for filing nominating petitions or the last day for filing a declaration of intention to seek retention.

In November 2002, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court amended Canon 7 to conform with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765 (2002), substituting the "commit clause" for the "announce clause" held unconstitutional in White.

There are no limits on campaign contributions from individuals and PACs. However, contributions from corporations, labor unions, and regulated industries are prohibited.

According to a study of the financing of Pennsylvania Supreme Court elections from 1979 to 1997, slightly more than $17 million was contributed to the thirty-five competitive supreme court candidates. The legal profession, including the plaintiff's bar and large defense-oriented law firms, accounted for more than half of this amount. The remainder came primarily from pro-business individuals and PACs. See James Eisenstein, "Financing Pennsylvania's Supreme Court Candidates," 84 Judicature 10 (2000).

Another study conducted by the Institute on Money in State Politics showed that contributions to the thirty candidates for supreme court seats between 1989 and 1999 totaled $13 million. Five of the candidates in contested races raised more than $1 million each. Slightly more than one fourth of the cases heard by the supreme court during this period involved campaign contributors. Click here to view the complete report on this study.

In the 2001 elections, fourteen candidates for appellate seats raised approximately $2.7 million, more than half of which came from attorneys. In a race for a seat on the supreme court, the two candidates reported campaign chests of more than $1 million each. These amounts did not include substantial expenditures by third parties such as the Law Enforcement Alliance of America (LEAA). LEAA, a Virginia-based group, spent between $300,000 and $600,000 on television advertisements touting one of the supreme court candidates and portraying the other as being soft on crime. The ads were suspended by a local judge after the LEAA declined to comply with the state's financial disclosure requirements. The order was later upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Another group, Pennsylvania Law Watch, distributed analyses of the candidates' decisions that characterized one as anti-business and the other as business-friendly. Democratic Party leaders filed a suit alleging that Law Watch was in violation of the state's election code, and as a result of a settlement, Law Watch agreed not to engage in further attempts to influence voters in the election. The outcome of the 2001 race shifted the composition of the supreme court from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 4-3 Republican-dominated court.

Justice at Stake Campaign
64% of Pennsylvania judges expressed dissatisfaction with the tone and conduct of judicial campaigns. 61% of judges supported a generic proposal for public financing of judicial elections, and 59% approved of a generic proposal for merit selection and retention of judges. Click here for complete poll results.

Special Commission to Limit Campaign Expenditures (1998)
81% of Pennsylvania voters thought that too much money was spent on judicial campaigns. 88% of voters thought that judges' courtroom decisions were influenced at least some of the time by campaign contributions. 64% believed that limiting campaign contributions would improve honesty and integrity in judicial campaigns.