HARRISBURG — A year ago, Pennsylvania voters were in the national spotlight and being fed a daily barrage of television ads for close presidential and U.S. Senate races.
The biggest statewide contest they will decide Nov. 7 pales in comparison — an appointed state Supreme Court justice will have to beat a former Pittsburgh Steeler to keep her job, and the court’s partisan balance is not in play.
The high court has been in Democratic hands since 2015, and the contested race can’t flip the majority to the Republicans.
Justice Sallie Mundy, a Republican nominated by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate last year, is running for a full 10-year term. Two other justices face up-or-down retention elections and are likely to remain on the court — Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican, and Justice Debra Todd, a Democrat.
Mundy’s opponent is Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Dwayne Woodruff, a Democrat who won a Super Bowl and earned a law degree while playing as a defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The court, which currently has five Democrats and two Republicans, has issued divided decisions in the past two years on public school funding, changes to the sex offender registry and gas drilling in state forests.
Mundy emphasizes her experience on the high court and on Superior Court, as well as the bipartisan support she received in being appointed a justice.
“I do my job and do my reading and do my research and listen to the litigants on each of my cases, and resolve each case,” she said.
Woodruff hopes to be a force for greater public transparency and stresses his support for union rights. He said the national political climate could also give him some tail wind.
“I’m hoping, that as I look across the landscape of America and the difficulty we’re having now, that we do come together,” Woodruff said.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association rated Mundy, who lives in Tioga, as “highly recommended,” praising her reputation and describing her as respectful of lawyers at oral argument and knowledgeable about the law.
Woodruff, who lives in Pittsburgh, was rated “recommended,” saying he was a quick study in family law after being assigned those cases as a county judge without experience in that area.
There are four open seats on Superior Court, a very busy appellate court that fields criminal, civil and family court appeals from counties.
The Democratic candidates are Philadelphia judges Carolyn Nichols and Maria McLaughlin, Beaver County Judge Deborah Anne Kunselman and Superior Court Judge Geoff Moulton.
Moulton, like Mundy on the high court, was appointed and is seeking a full 10-year term.
On the Republican side, the nominees are Blair County Judge Wade Kagarise, Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman, Northampton County Judge Emil Giordano and Mary Murray, a district judge in Allegheny County.
Giordano, Kunselman, Moulton and Stedman were ranked by the bar association as highly recommended, while Kagarise, McLaughlin and Nichols were recommended. Murray did not take part in the lawyers’ group ratings process.
There’s one retention race on the ballot, for Judge Jackie Shogan, a Republican first elected in 2007.
Two openings will be filled on Commonwealth Court, which deals with litigation involving government, including trials when the state is a party to the case.
The Democratic candidates are Philadelphia Judge Ellen Ceisler and Pittsburgh lawyer Irene McLaughlin Clark, facing off against Republicans Paul Lally, a Pittsburgh lawyer, and Delaware County Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon.
Ceisler and Lally were recommended by the state bar, and Cannon was rated highly recommended. Clark was not recommended, largely because of what was described as a lack of relevant experience.
Property tax amendment
A state Senate vote in July cleared the way for voters to decide whether to change the state constitution to let counties, municipalities and school districts exclude up to the full value of residents’ homes that they own from taxation.
Local governments have had the ability for two decades to exclude up to half the median value of homes in their area.
The ballot measure gives the General Assembly the ability to pass a law authorizing local governments to make the change, but it does not provide a way to make up the lost taxes, particularly the billions that are collected every year to fund public schools.
County, city and local races
For many voters it will be local contests that draw the greatest interest, including races for mayor, district attorney, school board and local entities.
There are a number of county judge and district judges races, and municipal court judge seats in Philadelphia.
Some county row offices, including sheriff, are up, as well as some county executives and a host of borough council, township commissioner and supervisor seats.
Size of legislature
There will not be a vote on a referendum to reduce the size of the state House from 203 members to 151 because it must first be approved by both chambers during the current two-year legislative term. Both the House and Senate voted for it during the past session, but so far it has not come up in the current session.
In order for voters to decide the issue, the General Assembly will have to vote for it by early July 2018.
Supporters say it would help the House operate more efficiently, and it would have major implications for the redrawing of district lines that will follow the 2020 census.