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By Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG — During Pennsylvania’s primary election in May, Democrats and Republicans will choose their parties’ nominees to fill a seat on the state Supreme Court.
Pennsylvania elects its Supreme Court justices in statewide partisan contests. The winners of the May 16 primary will compete during the Nov. 7 general election.
The state’s primaries are closed, meaning only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote for candidates during these spring contests. (Unaffiliated and third-party voters can vote on ballot questions, other referendums, and special elections during a primary.)
The seven-member court currently comprises four Democrats and two Republicans. One seat has been vacant since the death of former Chief Justice Max Baer, who occupied the bench for nearly two decades.
While the eventual winner of the race won’t change control of the court, a Republican victory could bring the party closer to retaking the majority it lost nearly a decade ago.
>>Register to vote, change your registration, request a mail ballot, and more at vote.pa.gov
The state Supreme Court takes on relatively few cases, but its rulings can have a major impact on politics and policy in Pennsylvania. In recent years, the court has decided cases on reproductive rights, mask mandates, and election disputes.
“The Supreme Court is the ultimate decider of law in Pennsylvania but most people don’t have everyday interaction,” said Deb Gross, president and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonprofit that educates people about Pennsylvania’s judicial system. “They rarely would handle a landlord-tenant case, but … would decide a case about voting or redistricting.”
Learn more about the candidates:
- Deborah Kunselman, Democrat
- Daniel McCaffery, Democrat
- Carolyn Carluccio, Republican
- Patricia McCullough, Republican
What a justice does
Justices on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court get the final say on cases that are appealed up through the commonwealth’s two other appellate courts, which means they often decide whether to uphold or overturn decisions from governors and the state legislature.
In recent years, the court has handed down major rulings interpreting Pennsylvania’s Election Code. The court’s decisions include instructing officials to toss out thousands of mail ballots with missing or incorrect dates on the outer envelopes, disqualifying thousands of ballots with missing inner envelopes, and letting counties use ballot drop boxes at their own discretion.
The court also intervenes when the governor, state House, and state Senate can’t agree on a congressional redistricting map.
In 2018, the justices declared the map unconstitutional and ordered lawmakers to draw a new one. They then commissioned a new map themselves when the lawmakers deadlocked. In 2022, the court again chose a new map.
Justices are elected to 10-year terms, after which they face a retention vote. In the past two decades, only one justice has failed to retain their seat.
During the latest election of a state Supreme Court justice, just over two years ago, candidates raised nearly $6 million over the course of the race. Republican Kevin Brobson won the election, beating his Democratic opponent Maria McLaughlin with over 50% of the vote.
April 4 is the next deadline for candidates to file a campaign finance report with the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Kunselman is based in Beaver County. She began her judicial career with an election to the county’s Court of Common Pleas in 2005 and won a seat on Superior Court in 2017.
She spent 13 years in private practice before that, working in civil litigation and family and employment law at several Pittsburgh-area law firms. During eight of those years, she also served as assistant solicitor and then chief solicitor for Beaver County.
Outside of her practice, Kunselman sometimes lectures about legal issues, volunteers as a religious education instructor, and annually serves as a judge at the Beaver County Mock Trial Competition.
She was rated “Highly Recommended” — the top designation — by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which wrote that she has a “reputation for being a thoughtful appellate decision-maker, open to persuasion, and proceeding in each matter with integrity and high character.”
In her Bar Association questionnaire, Kunselman wrote that her “passion for the law and love of writing opinions” drove her to run for state Supreme Court. She said that she hopes to write unambiguous, precedent-setting opinions that lawyers will be able to clearly understand.
Read Kunselman’s questionnaire here.
McCaffery, a Philadelphia native, was elected to Superior Court in 2019.
A veteran of the U.S. Army, McCaffery began his legal career as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, where he was assigned to the major trials unit.
Following his stint in the DA’s office, McCaffery joined a private firm based in Montgomery County and spent 16 years there as a civil trial attorney.
Before being elected to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in 2013, McCaffery volunteered as legal counsel for the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee and was a member of the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee. McCaffery’s website notes that he has also worked on 50 campaigns as a manager, fundraiser, and canvasser.
McCaffery is the Pennsylvania Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate, and his website also lists endorsements from the Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighters Association, the Pennsylvania Conference of Teamsters, and the Pennsylvania State Building & Construction Trades Council.
He was rated “Highly Recommended” by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which wrote that he has “sound knowledge of legal principles” and a history of “community involvement.”
McCaffery wrote in his questionnaire that he is running for state Supreme Court because he thinks that “Democratic Institutions including the judiciary are under duress.” He said that he hopes to restore confidence in the court system and will “approach every case in a non-partisan manner.”
Read McCaffery’s questionnaire here.
Carluccio is a judge on the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, to which she was first elected in 2009.
Before becoming a judge, Carluccio worked on both sides of the justice system. After a few years in private practice at the start of her career, she became an assistant U.S. attorney in Delaware in 1989 and served in the role for nearly a decade. She then served as chief public defender of Montgomery County from 2002 to 2006.
Carluccio also worked as chief deputy solicitor for Montgomery County, handling contract negotiations, real estate matters, and personnel and labor law issues. She also did a stint as the county’s acting director of human resources between 2008 and 2009.
Carluccio was elected unanimously by her peers to serve as president judge of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas in 2022.
The Pennsylvania Republican Party endorsed Carluccio in early February, choosing her over another candidate who had previously run for state Supreme Court.
She was rated “Highly Recommended” by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which called her a “highly respected jurist.”
In her questionnaire, she wrote that she “wants a justice system that is fair and impartial.” She also wrote that her “diverse court experience” is an asset, citing her experience on both sides of the justice system as well as in family and civil cases.
Read Carluccio’s questionnaire here.
McCullough, of Allegheny County, currently serves on Commonwealth Court. This is her second time running for state Supreme Court after losing the Republican primary in 2021 to Brobson.
During that election, McCullough’s husband began serving a prison sentence for taking money from an older woman’s trust fund — a factor that Republican Party officials said lessened their support for her candidacy.
McCullough was first elected to Commonwealth Court in 2010 and has since been involved in several high-profile cases regarding redistricting and election certification.
In November 2020, she ordered state officials to stop certifying the election results in response to a suit brought by U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly (R., Pa.) and others that sought to throw out mail ballots. A higher court later dismissed that ruling with prejudice, saying that the petitioners didn’t bring the case forward in a timely manner and that not certifying the election would result in the disenfranchisement of millions of voters.
When she ran for state Supreme Court in 2021, McCullough’s website stated that she was the sole candidate in the race who had been “praised by President [Donald] Trump.”
McCullough also recently attended a political rally hosted by state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), where she called Pennsylvania “the birthplace of the ‘One Nation Under God.’” The rally’s keynote speaker was Trump lawyer Christina Bobb, who spread false claims of election fraud.
In February, McCullough attended a Susquehanna County Republicans event and posed for a group photo that included Frank Scavo, a Pennsylvania resident who was sentenced to 60 days in prison for participating in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. (McCullough did not respond to a request for comment about the photo.)
During the 2020 redistricting cycle, the state Supreme Court picked McCullough to serve as the court’s special master and make a recommendation for a new congressional map.
She recommended that the state Supreme Court impose new congressional districts based on a map that state House Republicans submitted — a recommendation that the state Supreme Court justices did not take up.
McCullough began her career as a clerk to a Court of Common Pleas judge in Washington County, then worked as an attorney and adjunct professor for the University of Pittsburgh.
She went on to work in private practice for five years, until her appointment to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in 2005. During that time she also served as executive director of the Catholic Charities Diocese of Pittsburgh before returning to private practice. She was elected to Commonwealth Court in 2009.
On the campaign website for her 2021 state Supreme Court candidacy, McCullough wrote that she was running as a constitutionalist and that her belief in the state and federal constitutions fueled her desire to serve on the state Supreme Court.
McCullough did not complete the Pennsylvania Bar Association questionnaire, according to Charles Eppolito III, chair of the organization’s Judicial Evaluation Commission — a panel of members who evaluate judicial candidates. Candidates who do not complete the process receive a rating of “Not Recommended for failure to participate,” he said.
During her 2021 run for state Supreme Court, McCullough received a “Not Recommended” rating.
The organization’s Judicial Evaluation Commission wrote that it became aware of McCullough’s “alleged conduct at a previous employment,” and that when members questioned McCullough about the issue, she did not answer the questions “to the satisfaction of the commission.”
Read McCullough’s 2021 questionnaire here.
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