This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.
During Pennsylvania’s general election on Nov. 7, voters will select the newest state Supreme Court justice.
The winner of the election — Democrat Daniel McCaffery or Republican Carolyn Carluccio — will have considerable power over the interpretation of laws in the commonwealth, and will help determine the balance of the court in coming years.
The state Supreme Court is the final stop for lawsuits in Pennsylvania. Its seven members have the last word on legal questions about everything from election policy to abortion, and also oversee the commonwealth’s other courts and regulate the legal profession, including administering the state bar and disciplining lawyers who violate ethics rules.
In the past, state court races have been competitive but relatively sleepy affairs, with low spending compared to the tens of millions of dollars pumped into gubernatorial races. But that changed in 2015.
Democrats flipped the high court that year, winning three open seats in a race that cost at least $15.8 million. In the years since, that majority has handed down decisions in weighty, politically contentious cases — throwing out a state congressional map and commissioning a new one, allowing a lawsuit challenging state education funding to go to trial, and backstopping Pennsylvania’s no-excuse mail voting law.
With such high-profile issues in front of the court, political operatives in both major parties are paying close attention, and pouring more money into the races. With just one seat up for grabs in 2021, both candidates spent a combined $7.2 million.
This year, the campaigns of the two state Supreme Court candidates spent a combined $900,000 to win their primaries. With the general election not yet in high gear, Carluccio has $260,000 on hand, while McCaffery has more than $495,000.
This year’s race will not change partisan control of the court, which currently has a 4-2 majority of judges elected as Democrats, with one vacancy after the September 2022 death of former Chief Justice Max Baer.
But that majority could fade quickly, said Democratic political operative J.J. Abbott, as all four incumbent Democratic justices will either face retention or reach their mandatory retirement age by 2027.
“Republicans could in theory very quickly take back control of the court and hold it through 2030, giving them control of the redistricting process,” Abbott told Spotlight PA, referencing the redrawing of state legislative and congressional maps that happens once per decade.
Justices serve 10-year terms with no term limits. However, they must retire at age 75. If they reach that age mid-term, they step down and an election to replace them is held in the next odd year. The governor may appoint a replacement to serve in the interim, but two-thirds of the state Senate must approve of the choice.