- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania Democrats and Republicans went to the polls Tuesday to reduce a field of 12 state Supreme Court candidates by half, setting the stage for a high-stakes, big-spending showdown that could flip partisan control of the state's highest court for the first time in six years.

The three top vote-getters in each party will compete as the nominees for an unprecedented three open seats in the Nov. 3 general election.

The nomination races for Supreme Court and one open seat each on the Superior and Commonwealth courts were the only statewide election contests this year, but voters in Pennsylvania were also choosing nominees for a large number of local judgeships, municipal offices and school board seats.

The Democratic candidates for Supreme Court were Superior Court judges Christine Donohue, Anne Lazarus and David Wecht, Philadelphia Judge Kevin Dougherty, Jefferson County Judge John Foradora and Allegheny County Judge Dwayne Woodruff.

The Republican candidates were Supreme Court Justice Correale Stevens, Superior Court judges Cheryl Allen and Judy Olson, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey, Adams County Judge Mike George and Montour County District Attorney Rebecca Warren.

The candidates’ campaigns raised about $5 million in the primary, and the general election phase is expected to unleash a flood of cash from outside interest groups.

The hopefuls made frequent public appearances across the state and most aired TV ads to build name recognition, ever mindful of ethical rules that bar judicial candidates from personally soliciting money or endorsements or making promises about what they would do if elected.

All the candidates emphasized the need for ethics reform in the judiciary.

Two of the open seats are the result of resignations by disgraced justices - a Republican convicted of corruption for using state-paid staff to do political work and a Democrat implicated in a pornographic email scandal. The other vacancy resulted from the retirement of former Chief Justice Ronald Castille after he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Republicans have held a 4-3 majority on the court since 2010. The court’s partisan makeup is rarely an issue in the court’s day-to-day business, but it can stand out in situations such as appeals of legislative redistricting plans. Republicans currently hold comfortable majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Dougherty, who will turn 55 on primary day, consistently outpaced the other candidates in fundraising, taking in $1.4 million largely from labor organizations, lawyers and businesses. His brother is the business manager of the Philadelphia local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a generous supporter.

Wecht, 52, who like Dougherty was endorsed by the state Democratic Party, trailed him with $900,000 in contributions. Wecht, whose chambers are in Pittsburgh, is the son of pathologist Cyril Wecht, whose inquiries into the deaths of well-known figures such as Elvis Presley gained him national fame.

On the Republican side, George, 56, was the most successful fundraiser, thanks to a single $500,000 contribution from a businessman friend that pushed his total to $590,000. He was endorsed by the party.

Supreme Court justices are elected to 10-year terms, and receive an annual salary that is currently $203,409.

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