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OPINION: Dark Money Has No Place in Pennsylvania Courts

To protect fair and impartial justice, Pennsylvania voters need to turn out in huge numbers.
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Like competitive sailing or horse racing, Pennsylvania politics now seem to many like a sport that only the wealthy can play. Big-money interest groups from outside the Commonwealth now dominate our elections, dumping million-dollar hauls into the coffers of politicians they hope to influence when the time comes to pass a bill. The reality is that these groups have become all stars in Harrisburg politics while regular Pennsylvanians are stuck on the bench. 

As if having influence over our elected officials wasn’t enough, these big-money donors now want to scratch our judicial elections off their wishlist. Spending in the election for our state supreme court alone has already totaled $17 million, a staggering figure compared to the roughly $6 million spent on the last such race in 2021. Dig a bit into that figure and you’ll find that nearly $750,000 comes from a group bankrolled by a single extremist, out-of-state billionaire who’s backing GOP-backed state Supreme Court candidate Carolyn Carluccio. He is Dick Uihlein and is no stranger to throwing his money around. Uihlein, an Illinois resident, helped fund groups stoking the flames behind the Jan. 6 insurrection; he’s also fresh off a spending spree in Wisconsin’s courts elections in May (his group, Fair Courts America, dropped $5.5 million on the race). 

But Uihlein’s spending is just the tip of the iceberg. As if one heavy-spending, partisan billionaire wasn’t enough, there’s also Pennsylvania’s richest resident, Jeffrey Yass, who has spent upwards of $4 million in support of Carluccio. Carluccio’s opponent, Democrat Judge Dan McCaffery, has also had millions in support from lawyers’ groups, labor unions, and trade associations. The lesson is clear: wealthy groups favoring both liberal and conservative interests are acting like their money is always welcome in Pennsylvania, and that’s bad news for voters like us.  

Courts play a vital role in safeguarding the rights and freedoms of every resident of the Keystone State, whether they’re workers, entrepreneurs, parents, students, or members of the community. We trust our judiciary to guarantee that all Pennsylvanians will get a fair shake, independent of their zip code, size of their bank accounts or their fancy political connections.

It’s equal justice that we want, but getting it becomes close to impossible when court races are being funded by wealthy donors who couldn’t tell a Wawa from a Sheetz, or a Pat’s cheesesteak from Dalessandro’s. Oftentimes, their spending will come in the form of dark, untraceable money, making it even harder to find out who’s trying to handpick our judges. It’s the kind of thing that has sadly become commonplace in big legislative races, but that doesn’t mean we should sit idly as the same spending arms races form around our courts. Our judges should be like sports referees. They shouldn’t wear any team’s jersey or choose favorites before the game; they should stick to the rules – in this case, the Pennsylvania constitution – and avoid at all costs the perception of being biased in their decisions.  

Pennsylvanians can disagree often when it comes to politics, but one thing we can all get behind is barring partisanship from affecting our courts. To protect fair and impartial justice, Pennsylvania voters need to turn out in huge numbers. It’s the only way to counteract those wealthy interest groups; we must ensure that our voices are not drowned out by dollars. It’s past time to let the country know that not everything is up for sale and our Commonwealth’s courts can’t be bought. 

To protect our rights and freedoms, make your voice heard and vote on or before Nov. 7, when we the people of Pennsylvania will decide who will fill a vacancy on our state Supreme Court, the two seats on our state Superior Court and one seat on state Commonwealth Court.

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Kadida Kenner

Kadida Kenner is the CEO of the New Pennsylvania Project, a statewide voting rights organization with a primary focus on voter registration, civic engagement and mobilization, and co-chair of Why Courts Matter — Pennsylvania, a campaign educating Pennsylvanians about the importance of the independence of both the federal and state courts. She writes from Chester County.

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