With only one state Superior Court judgeship up for election in this off-election year, political observers said that this sort of election cycle tends to favor Republicans rather than Democrats.
Earlier this month, the Republican Party unanimously endorsed Victor P. Stabile, the managing partner of Dilworth Paxson’s Harrisburg office, after Robert C. Wyda, a district court judge from Allegheny County, withdrew his name for endorsement while saying he would remain in the race, according to news reports.
The Democratic Party endorsed Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters, 199-62, over Pittsburgh attorney Michael H. Wojcik, senior counsel with Thorp Reed & Armstrong, who served as county solicitor under former chief executives Dan Onorato and Rich Fitzgerald, according to news reports.
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College poll and the college’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs, said off-year elections in which there are no higher-wattage races for the presidency or for the governor’s mansion are "probably the best cycles for Republicans that you can find."
While there are 1 million more registered Democratic voters in Pennsylvania than registered Republican voters, that edge really only provides an advantage in presidential election years, said political strategist Larry Ceisler of Ceisler Media.
Not many Democrats are running this year for the Superior Court races because this type of cycle tends to favor Republicans and voter turnout in Philadelphia will be low because the mayor’s office won’t be up for grabs, Ceisler said.
It’s a good year to run for Democratic judicial candidates when the mayor’s office in Philadelphia is in contest, Ceisler said.
The "traditional wisdom is that Democrats always do better in cycle years when there’s big races up and the Republicans do better in the other years," Ceisler said.
Pittsburgh, unlike Philadelphia, will have a mayoral primary, which likely will benefit Wojcik in the primary for Superior Court or any other candidates from Western Pennsylvania, Madonna and Ceisler both said.
Typically, voters don’t pay attention to intermediate appellate court races, Madonna said.
"One of the criticisms of the current system is not just that [candidates] take money from the legal profession, but I think the other problem … is that the voters really don’t have any sense about who the candidates are," Madonna said.
Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts also said history has shown that voters do not pay attention to judicial races and that the race for Superior Court, as well as the retention races for Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, Justice Max Baer and Superior Court Judges Susan Peikes Gantman and Jack Panella will likely not garner any attention at all.
"The Superior Court is an extremely important court and their decisions are often final," Marks said in an email. "I hope that there will be a lot of attention not only to the candidates, but as an opportunity to educate the public about the role of the court and its judges. But unfortunately, history has shown otherwise."
Marks also said that even though fundraising records have been set lately in Pennsylvania for other appellate races and the question has been raised whether judges should be appointed on the basis of merit or, rather, elected, this year’s Superior Court race likely won’t even raise that question unless it turns out to be a nasty contest.
In an interview, Stabile said it is challenging to run in a statewide appellate race because most people "don’t have any preformed interest in them. You really need to educate people that these courts exist and what they do" before interesting them in supporting one’s candidacy.
No candidate can begin to develop name recognition unless he or she raises $5 million, and that level of fundraising is not reached even in the races for state Supreme Court, Madonna said.
Candidates also cannot take a position on issues under the Pennsylvania judicial canons, Madonna said.
"You have a lot of people out there who don’t have enough money and, by the way, can’t talk about anything except their experience," Madonna said.
Waters has to run with the Philadelphia County line under his name, and "that’s been a problem for Philly candidates in the past," Madonna said. While the "curse of Philadelphia" is not as strong as it used to be in the city’s suburbs, there still is an anti-Philadelphia attitude west of Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware counties, he said.
Stabile practices in the area of complex commercial and business litigation, contracts, construction, gaming, administrative and government agency law, land use law, trust litigation, election law and corporate governance.
Stabile said he has represented both plaintiffs and defendants in his practice and he has an appreciation for the perspectives on both sides of the fence.
Stabile, a Republican, ran unsuccessfully in the general election for appellate court in 2011.
Stabile said he was attracted to work for Dilworth Paxson since 1987 because the firm prioritizes public service and not being afraid to defend the underdog.
Stabile said he is interested in running for judge because he has always enjoyed the substantive, analytical side of the law, and his judicial philosophy is that "when you sit on that bench, everyone who walks in that courtroom is entitled to equal justice and equal protection of law."
Stabile previously served as supervisor of Middletown Township in Cumberland County and chairman of the Cumberland County Republican Committee.
Stabile and Waters were both rated "recommended" by the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
The association said Stabile has strong writing skills, administrative ability and experience in handling appellate matters.
"He is held in high regard by his peers, who have noted his intellect, strong work ethic and integrity," the association said of Stabile. "He also serves as a township supervisor and has an exemplary record of pro bono and community service."
The association said Waters has served as a Municipal Court judge since 2009, was with the Philadelphia Police Department for 21 years and worked as a lawyer in private practice representing clients primarily in bankruptcy, family and criminal defense matters.
"His law enforcement background has served him well as a municipal court judge; however, his experience before the Superior Court is limited," the association said of Waters. "The commission found the candidate has adequate writing and analytical skills and believes the candidate would be able to perform satisfactorily as a judge on the Superior Court."
Northampton County Court of Common Pleas Judge Edward G. Smith was rated as "highly recommended" by the bar association. It is unclear whether Smith is still in the race, and Smith could not be reached for comment.
The association said Smith, who has been a judge since 2002, presides over both civil and criminal matters, including as the supervising judge of the grand jury and the judge presiding over the asbestos division. Smith is also a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, holding the rank of captain and serving two tours as a military trial judge. Smith served a combat tour in Iraq, earning a Bronze Star for "aiding the development of the Iraqi court system and a fair system for handling Iraqi detainees."
"In the courtroom, he has earned a reputation for being thorough, orderly and efficient," the association said of Smith. "His written opinions are cogent and well-reasoned. Based on his exemplary military and judicial record as well as his commitment to community service, the commission believes that the candidate possesses the legal ability and demeanor to serve with distinction on the Superior Court and highly recommends his candidacy."
Wyda, who was elected as a Republican in 2000 to become a magisterial district judge in Bethel Park, Allegheny County, graduated from Duquesne University School of Law in 1981, served in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General Corps from 1985 to 1990, worked in the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office from 1990 to 1997, and worked as an assistant court administrator in the county from 1997 to 2000.
Neither Wyda nor Wojcik could be reached for comment and neither has yet been rated by the bar association.