Supreme Court vacancy heads Pennsylvania primary ballots

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Party nominees for four statewide judicial posts, including one on the Supreme Court, will be settled in Tuesday’s primary election in Pennsylvania.

Democrats currently hold a 4-2 majority on the state’s highest court, which is playing a prominent role in settling disputes over voting rights, abortion rights and gun rights in the presidential battleground state.

Competing on the Republican ticket are Carolyn Carluccio, a Montgomery County judge; and Patricia McCullough, a judge on the Commonwealth Court, a statewide appellate court that handles cases involving government agencies or challenges to state laws.

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On the campaign trail, McCullough has repeatedly boasted of being the “only judge in 2020 in the presidential election in the entire country” to order a halt to her state’s election certification.

McCullough was ruling in a Republican-backed post-election legal challenge that sought to throw out 2.5 million mail-in ballots — most cast by Democrats — and tilt victory to Trump in the presidential battleground state. The state’s high court quickly overturned McCullough’s order.

McCullough, of Allegheny County, also ran for state Supreme Court in 2021 and lost in the primary. The state party is endorsing Carluccio and party allies have reported spending nearly $1 million to help her beat McCullough.

Running on the Democratic ticket are Dan McCaffery of Philadelphia and Deborah Kunselman of Beaver County. Both of them currently sit on the state Superior Court, a statewide appellate body that handles appeals from county courts in criminal and civil cases.

The high court seat is open following the death last year of Max Baer, who was chief justice.

The court has handled a number of hot-button issues over the past few years. It is currently examining a challenge to a state law that restricts the use of public funds to help women get an abortion, as well as Philadelphia’s challenge to a state law that bars it and other municipalities from restricting the sale and possession of guns.

In recent years, justices rejected a request to invalidate the state’s death penalty law and upheld the constitutionality of the state’s expansive mail-in voting law.

The court also turned away challenges to the 2020 presidential election from Republicans who wanted to keep Donald Trump in power, and ruled on a variety of lawsuits filed over gray areas in the mail-in voting law.

In one 2020 election case, the court ordered counties to count mail-in ballots that arrived up to three days after polls closed, citing delays in mail service caused by disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ruling spurred an outcry among Republicans, who challenged the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation’s highest court ultimately declined to take the case. Still, the ballots — nearly 10,000 of them — were never tabulated or added to vote counts in federal elections because the election was certified while their fate remained in legal limbo. State elections officials said the votes weren’t enough to change the results of a federal election.

Five candidates are running for two open seats on the Superior Court, from which one judge retired and where another will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 later this year.

On the Democratic ticket are Jill Beck, Pat Dugan and Timika Lane. Dugan is president judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court, Lane is a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge and Beck, of Pittsburgh, is a lawyer in private practice who has clerked on the state Superior and Supreme courts.

Both Beck and Lane ran for an open seat on the Superior Court in 2021 but lost — Beck in the primary and Lane in the general election.

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On Republican ballots will be Harry Smail, a Westmoreland County judge, and Marie Battista, a Clarion County lawyer.

Battista is a former county prosecutor who ran unsuccessfully for Clarion County district attorney in 2019.

For Commonwealth Court, one seat is open after Republican judge Kevin Brobson was elected to the state Supreme Court in 2021.

On Democratic ballots is Matt Wolf, a Philadelphia Municipal Court judge, and Bryan Neft, a trial lawyer from Pittsburgh.

On Republican ballots are Megan Martin, who spent more than a decade as parliamentarian of the state Senate, and Joshua Prince, a Berks County lawyer best known for taking on gun rights cases.

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