Pennsylvania Supreme Court candidates spent $1.1 million on ads in two weeks

(Photo credit: Joe Gratz/Flickr)

In Pennsylvania, candidates heavily fundraised and advertised aggressively in the lead up to May’s primary election for the three open seats on the commonwealth’s Supreme Court. A Sunlight Foundation analysis of documents obtained through its Political Ad Sleuth tool reveals that candidates bought over $1.1 million worth of television advertisements in just the two weeks leading up to the primary.

The election narrowed the field down to six candidates: Kevin Dougherty, David Wecht, Christine Donohue, Judith Olson, Mike George and Anne Covey. Although information on Donohue could not be obtained, the other five actively purchased ad spots. According to financial disclosure reports, Dougherty spent over $531,000 on three media buys during that final period of time, by far the most amount of money. This gap in spending between Dougherty and the field is consistent with the earlier findings of the Brennan Center.

As both Ad Sleuth data and the Brennan Center estimates indicate, spending did not guarantee a successful outcome. Anne Lazarus allocated $142,777 for ads, and John Foradora acquired $114,690 in advertising, yet neither finished in the top three. Further, despite paying for the least amount of television publicity, Judith Olson managed to receive the most Republican votes.

Pennsylvania is not the only state to select its Supreme Court justices through elections; indeed, 21 other states enact the same practice. The ramifications of this election, however, are quite substantial because the Supreme Court consists of seven judges, two of which are vacant. Since the people will be able to vote to radically shift the ideology of the court, it becomes increasingly important to know where the candidates are receiving that money, especially since one of the consistent criticisms against the direct election of jurors highlights the need for candidates to fundraise from large donors and special interests.

This predicament only reiterates the need for transparency, yet unfortunately finding data on contributions for this election cannot be accomplished easily. The campaign finance online reporting website for Pennsylvania contains the necessary filings, but they are in PDF — not a machine-readable format — making it more burdensome to discover conflicts of interest, major contributors and other useful information.