Democrat Kathryn Boockvar said she’s made it to at least 55 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties in her bid for a seat on Commonwealth Court. Republican Vic Stabile said his campaign for Superior Court has him going “as far as my shoes and tire rubber will carry me.”
Voters may not know much about Pennsylvania’s intermediate appellate courts, but four candidates for two judgeships are sure learning a lot about the state as they wrap up long-distance, high-mileage campaigns before Tuesday’s election. And along the way, they are trying to give voters quickie courses on the appellate courts’ importance.
“So many people don’t understand what the judges do on these particular courts,” said Anne Covey, a Bucks County lawyer who is running against Boockvar, also a Bucks County lawyer, for one of nine seats on Commonwealth Court, which handles cases involving state and local government, regulatory agencies, and election law.
Covey called Commonwealth and Superior Courts the “ultimate workhorses” of the state judiciary, because they have final say on the vast majority of appeals. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the highest bench in the state, hears only a fraction of the cases in which litigants seek the high court’s review.
The race for a vacancy on the 15-member Superior Court, which handles appeals of criminal, family, and most civil cases, pits Harrisburg lawyer Stabile against Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Wecht, a Democrat.
All four candidates got good ratings from the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which deemed Boockvar, Covey, and Stabile “recommended” and Wecht “highly recommended.”
Boockvar, 43, of Doylestown, represented low-income clients in legal services agencies in the 1990s, then spent 10 years in private practice. For the last three years, she was senior attorney in the voting-rights division of Advancement Project, a nonpartisan national civil rights organization.
Boockvar said Commonwealth Court hears cases involving many legal issues she has handled, and has a significant impact on broad policy matters such as zoning, the environment, and employment law. Once she explains the court’s impact to prospective voters, she said, “then people are really engaged and are really interested.”
Covey, 51, of Upper Makefield, is an employment-law expert who has served on the state Labor Relations Board since 2002. She also has a private practice in New Hope and in Lambertville, N.J., where she has primarily represented businesses in employment and labor matters.
Covey said she’s wanted to be a judge since high school. In fact, she said, she wanted to be the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court – but Sandra Day O’Connor “got there first.”
Stabile, 54, of Cumberland County, has been a lawyer with the Dilworth Paxson L.L.P. law firm since 1987 and had been managing partner of its Harrisburg office since 1992. He mainly handles complex commercial and business litigation.
Wecht, 49, of Allegheny County, has been a trial judge in Pittsburgh since 2003 and previously served as county register of wills and clerk of Orphans Court. He is the eldest son of nationally known forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht.
In a state known for costly judicial races, campaign money has become an issue in this one. Wecht has led in fund-raising, his campaign taking in more than $500,000. The campaigns of Boockvar and Covey have each raised more than $300,000, according to their campaigns.
Stabile, whose campaign has raised about $250,000, said he objected to the size of a $300,000 donation to Wecht’s campaign by the Philadelphia trial lawyers’ political action committee. Stabile received $25,000 from the same PAC, Committee for a Better Tomorrow.
“What I have a problem with is the 800-pound gorilla coming into the room and making a contribution so disproportionate in this race that it’s overwhelming,” Stabile said Wednesday.
While he has been able to do some advertising, he said the infusion of trial-lawyer money had enabled Wecht’s campaign to do much more.
Wecht said the amount didn’t trouble him, and he noted that the same group gave a smaller donation to Wecht. “They apparently found me to be the more qualified candidate,” he said.
Stabile said he’s pressing on, “burning up the rubber” and trying to offset his rival’s money advantage by campaigning “every waking hour” between now and Tuesday.
A report released last week by three nonpartisan groups said the state had the nation’s second-most expensive judicial election in the 2009-10 election cycle.
In 2009, campaign spending exceeded $5.4 million for one state Supreme Court seat, second only to a Michigan race that year, according to the report, “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2009-2010,” prepared by the Justice at Stake Campaign, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money and State Politics.