The statistics are bold and undeniable: In one term, Donald Trump secured 33 percent of the U.S. Supreme Court justices and 30 percent of the appellate court judges. These are all lifetime appointments that will impact Americans for decades to come.
Pennsylvania’s off-year election is November 2. Off-year elections without a major elected official on the ballot are notorious for low voter turnout. Low voter turnout is also problematic for elections in which judges are on the ballot. Voters tend to be unfamiliar with judges and what they do and how critical they are. Yet we vote on judges regularly, and the Nov. 2 election is no exception.
What happened to the judiciary during the Trump administration has had a serious impact on women, people of color, immigrants and disabled and LGBTQ people. Recent decisions impacting reproductive rights and LGBTQ civil liberties have been decided by the Trump Supreme Court.
An open seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court left by the mandatory retirement of Justice Thomas Saylor (R) will be filled by either Republican Kevin Brobson, a judge on the state Commonwealth Court, or Democrat Maria McLaughlin, a judge on the Superior Court who was a prosecutor in Philadelphia for over 20 years.
The race has garnered nearly $6 million in funding — about 60% for Bronson from a PAC funded by suburban Philadelphia GOP billionaire Jeffrey Yass. McLaughlin has received her largest share of funding from labor unions. The race is a special interests bonanza from within and outside of the state.
The state Supreme Court is pivotal. It has previously tossed a gerrymandered congressional map, upheld Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus pandemic restrictions during a time of tremendous upheaval, and rendered key decisions on Pennsylvania’s voting laws. It is highly likely that looming congressional and state legislative redistricting maps could come before the state Supreme Court next year.
Generally, a state supreme court, like most appellate tribunals, is exclusively for hearing appeals of legal issues. Although state supreme court rulings on matters of state law are final, rulings on matters of federal law can be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the highest appellate court in Pennsylvania and hears certain appeals from the Superior and Commonwealth Courts. The Supreme Court is a court of limited jurisdiction, meaning that it is not required to hear every appeal but, instead, chooses the cases to hear based upon the importance of the issues presented.
There are 7 Supreme Court justices. The Supreme Court is based in Harrisburg, but also hears cases in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The state Supreme Court is crucial to Pennsylvanians, but as the 2020 election showed, it is also critical in the national fight for voting rights and free and fair elections.
In the 2020 PA primary, 37,119 ballots were rejected in Pennsylvania (more than any state other than California and New York), disenfranchising those voters. Most absentee or mail-in ballots are rejected because required signatures are missing or don’t match the one on record, or because voters missed the deadline to submit those ballots. Pennsylvania also has a “naked ballot” law where ballots must be sealed in a “secrecy envelope” and then placed in the official mailing envelope; failure to do so also results in the ballot’s rejection.
To put these rejected ballots into perspective, consider that Donald Trump only won Pennsylvania in the 2016 presidential election by 44,292 votes, or by 0.7%. In 2020, Joe Biden won the state by a mere 1.07%. But Pennsylvania’s 20 Electoral College votes won the state for Biden and on Nov. 7, the final vote count in Philadelphia resulted in Biden’s win.
The PA Supreme Court played a pivotal role in the 2020 election. Trump fought to limit voters’ access to mail-in voting in Pennsylvania starting with the primary, specifically by filing lawsuits to limit how and when ballots could be received and counted.
On September 28, 2020, Pennsylvania’s Republican legislative leaders asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to count mail-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day. GOP legislators claimed this ostensibly extended the election.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that claim in a late-night vote on October 20 — just two weeks before the election. The high court ruled that Pennsylvania could legally extend the deadline for receipt of mail-in ballots to November 6 — three days after Election Day.
This wasn’t the Republicans’ first failed attempt to curtail Pennsylvania voters. After Trump himself asserted at the presidential debate on September 30 that “bad things happen in Philadelphia,” claiming the city and state were rigging the votes against him, federal court Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan threw out a lawsuit filed by Trump’s campaign on October 10, dismissing its challenges to the battleground state’s poll-watching law and its efforts to limit how mail-in ballots can be collected and which of them can be counted.
Still, Trump appealed Ranjan’s ruling then, and Trump has repeatedly said since the election that he won Pennsylvania and the “Democrat courts” allowed Democrats to cheat.
Trump’s continued assertion of “The Big Lie” (the lie that he really won the 2020 election) has created a widening political schism in the country. The gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia hinge in part on that rhetoric. And while it’s likely that Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy will be re-elected in New Jersey, the open Virginia race between longtime Democratic strategist Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin is a dead heat and viewed as a litmus for Biden.
But Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court race is also a litmus. This is the first state Supreme Court election in Pennsylvania since 2017. And while it won’t shift the power dynamic no matter who wins, it will send a message about who’s voting.
All the races in Pennsylvania are critical, but those judgeships are key. What happened in the state throughout 2020 will happen again in 2024, whether Trump is the Republican nominee for president or just supporting whoever the GOP nominee is. The battle by House Republicans on January 6 to stop the certification of the election hinged on Pennsylvania — Trump needed the state’s 20 electoral college votes. Pennsylvania had swung the country for Biden and Trump needed to swing it back. That same scenario could easily reprise in 2024, especially if Republicans regain the House in the 2022 midterms.
It’s too late to obtain a mail-in ballot in Pennsylvania, but they can be mailed in as late as Nov. 2, as long as they are postmarked with that date. The in-person polls open at 7am on Election Day. When civil rights are on the ballot, every vote counts.