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Pa. election 2023: A complete guide to the candidates for Commonwealth and Superior Courts

During the Nov. 7 election, six candidates will run for Pennsylvania’s intermediate appellate courts, which wield significant power over legal disputes and criminal cases that directly affect your life.

Pa. election 2023: A complete guide to the candidates for Commonwealth and Superior Courts

IMAGE: The exterior of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center.

Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA and Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — On Nov. 7, Pennsylvanians will select a new judge for Commonwealth Court and two for Superior Court — and all of these new judges will immediately wield the power to referee legal disputes over state law and decide major criminal cases.

The commonwealth’s two intermediate appellate courts can affirm or reverse decisions made in lower courts. Their rulings can be appealed to the state Supreme Court, Pennsylvania’s court of last resort.

The person who wins the open seat on Commonwealth Court could help shape Pennsylvania’s laws on everything from elections to firearms, while the two candidates who win seats on Superior Court could decide the outcomes of high-profile criminal cases and set precedents that impact everyone within the criminal justice system. The Superior Court race features two Democrats and two Republicans, and the two candidates who get the highest vote counts will win seats.

Judges on both courts also are often top candidates to fill openings on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

All appellate judges 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 judge to serve in the interim, but the replacement must be approved by two-thirds of the state Senate.

This election cycle also includes retention votes for two Superior Court judges, alongside the contests to fill the two open seats.

Courts and Candidates

  1. Commonwealth Court
  2. Republican candidate: Megan Martin
  3. Democratic candidate: Matt Wolf
  4. Superior Court
  5. Republican candidate: Maria Battista
  6. Republican candidate: Harry Smail
  7. Democratic candidate: Jill Beck
  8. Democratic candidate: Timika Lane
  9. Retention

Commonwealth Court

Republican Commonwealth Court candidate Megan Martin. Via candidate Facebook page

Republican candidate: Megan Martin

A Cumberland County resident and Widener University law school graduate, Martin is the former parliamentarian of the state Senate. She entered the Commonwealth Court primary as the state GOP’s endorsed candidate, and won the nod by defeating gun rights attorney Joshua Prince 63% to 37%.

As the secretary-parliamentarian, Martin advised the Pennsylvania Senate’s presiding officer on how to run floor proceedings in accordance with the state constitution, law, precedent, and chamber rules.

Before joining the chamber, she served as a staffer and then an attorney for former GOP Govs. Tom Ridge and Tom Corbett, as an attorney for the U.S. Navy, and as a law clerk for a Lancaster County judge.

Judicial philosophy and public statements: In questionnaires with conservative interest groups, Martin has said that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and state Supreme Court Justice Kevin Brobson come closest to representing her judicial philosophy.

“I am a strict constructionist,” she wrote in response to a survey by the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform, a nonprofit that primarily advocates for friendlier laws for the health care industry and other business interests in civil cases. “I am a textualist and an originalist; I do not believe the constitution is a ‘living document.’”

In a survey by the socially conservative Pennsylvania Family Institute, she said she agreed with the U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade, which calls Roe an “egregiously wrong” decision and compares it to Plessy v. Ferguson, which affirmed the constitutionality of slavery.

Martin’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the survey.

Endorsements and recommendations: The Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA) rated her as “Recommended,” saying that Martin’s “substantial administrative law experience will serve her well.”

Read Martin’s answers to the PBA questionnaire here.

Democratic Commonwealth Court candidate Matt Wolf. Via candidate website

Democratic candidate: Matt Wolf

Wolf sits on the Philadelphia Municipal Court, where he has served as a judge since 2017 and hears both civil and criminal cases. He won his primary against Allegheny County attorney Bryan Neft, securing nearly 60% of the vote.

In a PBA questionnaire, Wolf said during the primary election that he presides over landlord-tenant cases more than any other judge on the municipal court and has also heard misdemeanor and summary criminal trials.

Prior to his election, Wolf worked as a trial attorney for 25 years at various firms, primarily in New Jersey, including his father’s practice and his own. He said in his PBA questionnaire that many of his cases centered on civil rights law during his time as a trial attorney, with a focus on employment claims and government misconduct.

Wolf joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 2003, where he served as an officer, and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. On deployment, Wolf was a legal advisor to the army. He joined the Pennsylvania National Guard in 2020 and still trains new members of the Guard at Fort Indiantown Gap.

Judicial philosophy and public statements: During a candidate forum hosted by nonprofit advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts before this year’s primary election, Wolf said his judicial philosophy includes restraining judicial activism, which he called “not-productive.” He also said he thinks the state’s judicial ethics standards in Pennsylvania should be kept as they are, calling them “sufficient.”

“I don’t believe that it is productive to be activist at all and change things for the sake of a political reason,” Wolf said.

At the same forum, he said he was the only primary candidate with any experience as a judge, and additionally noted he has argued in front of appellate courts in the past, including the New Jersey Supreme Court. This background, he said, has prepared him to serve on Commonwealth Court.

Endorsements and recommendations: Wolf is endorsed by the state Democratic Party.

The PBA rated him as “Recommended,” saying that his writing is “clear and concise,” and noting that he has a history of public service.

Read Wolf’s answers to the PBA questionnaire here.

Superior Court

Republican Superior Court candidate Maria Battista. Via candidate website

Republican candidate: Maria Battista

A Clarion County resident who holds a law degree from Ohio Northern University, Battista previously served as assistant general counsel for the health and state departments under former Govs. Corbett, a Republican, and Tom Wolf, a Democrat. She also worked as a prosecutor in Franklin and Venango Counties, and was a contract specialist for the Department of Defense.

She has since left the Department of Defense to run for office, according to the Courier-Express, and now works as vice president of state and federal contracting for the Judge Group, a Wayne-based consulting firm.

Judicial philosophy and public statements: In a survey by the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform, a nonprofit that primarily advocates for friendlier laws for the health care industry and other business interests in civil cases, Battista wrote that former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is her judicial role model.

She said that “it is not the role of a judge to legislate from the bench, and this is even more important when dealing with constitutional matters.”

Endorsements and recommendations: Battista was endorsed by the state Republican Party in the primary, and didn’t face any competition.

As of August, the PBA did not recommend her, after she declined to participate in their judicial evaluation process.

Republican Superior Court candidate Harry Smail. Via candidate website

Republican candidate: Harry Smail

Smail has been a Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas judge since Corbett appointed him in 2014.

Before that, he was a private practice attorney who ran unsuccessfully for numerous county offices, and he served as a solicitor for two county row offices. He received his law degree from Duquesne University.

Judicial philosophy and public statements: In 2020, Smail ruled against the Westmoreland County Board of Elections in a case brought by a Republican candidate for state Senate in an extremely close race.

He ordered the board to throw out 204 provisional ballots, which are cast when a person’s registration or mail voting status cannot immediately be verified, and are assessed after regular ballots are counted. Those 204 provisional ballots were cast by people who were wrongly told by election workers that they also needed to sign their precinct’s pollbook. By signing the book, the voters erroneously indicated they had also cast a ballot using a voting machine.

Smail ruled that the Westmoreland election board did not conduct due diligence when it accepted those 204 votes without “further substantiating evidence” that voters hadn’t voted twice.

“While the Court is loath to impose the consequences of a failure of the Board onto an innocent electorate … the court must apply the provisions of the Elections Code consistently and as written by our legislature,” Smail wrote in the 12-page decision.

In other decisions, Smail ruled in favor of a local newspaper that sued the borough of Monessen for violating the Sunshine Act, and against a challenge by local activists who tried to block a zoning plan that allowed fracking in a residential area. Commonwealth Court upheld the latter decision.

In questionnaires, he’s said his judicial philosophy resembles those of Scalia and sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Gorsuch, Smail wrote to the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform, “has a very reasoned review of facts. He is not afraid to make a decision that will make for a more efficient … adjudication of the law with a correct outcome.”

Endorsements and recommendations: Smail was endorsed by the Republican Party and ran unopposed in the primary. On its website, the state GOP points to rulings Smail made in 2020 “that upheld essential anti-fraud requirements for casting a mail-in ballot.”

The PBA rated Smail “Recommended” “based on his extensive background, legal ability and temperament.”

Read Smail’s answers to the PBA questionnaire here.

Democratic Superior Court candidate Jill Beck. Via candidate Facebook page

Democratic candidate: Jill Beck

Beck is a Pittsburgh-based attorney who works in commercial litigation.

She clerked for Judge Christine Donohue on the state Supreme and Superior Courts between 2010 and 2019. Beck has said that during her time clerking, she drafted over 500 opinions and worked on topics ranging from election matters to workers’ compensation to congressional redistricting.

Beck also ran for Superior Court in 2021 but lost in the primary to Timika Lane of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

Following her time as a clerk, she worked at Blank Rome LLP — one of the largest law firms in the United States — in commercial litigation.

Judicial philosophy and public statements: Speaking at a candidate forum hosted by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts during the primary, Beck said the U.S. Supreme Court Justice she would most like to emulate is Justice Anthony Kennedy, who she described as a jurist who “transcended partisan politics.” She said she believes in a judiciary that is “engaged but restrained.”

“He was someone who you would not know which way he was going to come out on a case,” Beck said. “He was a consensus-builder, a tiebreaker. And that is something that I would love to be viewed as when I’m on the court myself.”

Beck has also worked at KidsVoice, a nonprofit that advocates for children in the child welfare system in Allegheny County.

Endorsements and recommendations: Beck was one of two — out of three — candidates who the Pennsylvania Democratic Party endorsed during the primary.

The PBA rated her “Highly Recommended,” writing that Beck possesses “the highest combination of legal ability, experience and integrity.”

Read Beck’s answers to the PBA questionnaire here.

Democratic Superior Court candidate Timika Lane. Via candidate

Democratic candidate: Timika Lane

Lane has served for a decade as a judge on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, where she works in the Complex Litigation Center.

She previously ran for Superior Court in 2021; she won the primary election but lost in the general contest to Republican Megan Sullivan.

Lane began her career as a public school teacher in Maryland, where she worked for four years. She obtained a law degree from Rutgers Law School in 2002, and has since spent her career in Philadelphia.

She clerked for Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, worked as a trial attorney in the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and served as legal counsel for state Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia) until she was elected to her current position.

Judicial philosophy and public statements: Ina candidate forum hosted by Pennyslvanians for Modern Courts during the primary, Lane described her courtroom as a safe space for “people to tell their truth.”

She said her judicial philosophy includes ensuring that everyone in her courtroom will receive a fair trial, and named U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson as a role model that she hopes to emulate if elected to Superior Court.

In an interview, Lane said that it is essential to create a court environment in which “every person that appears before the court” is treated with respect.

Endorsements and recommendations: Lane was one of two — out of three — candidates who the Pennsylvania Democratic Party endorsed during the primary election.

The PBA rated Lane as “Highly Recommended,” saying that it is “confident the candidate is capable of outstanding performance as a Superior Court of Pennsylvania judge.”

Read Lane’s answers to the PBA questionnaire here.

Retention

Voters will also be asked to reapprove 10-year terms for two sitting Superior Court judges in nonpartisan retention elections.

Judge Vic Stabile, elected as a Republican in 2013, is seeking a second term. President Judge Jack Panella, elected as a Democrat in 2003, is seeking a third.

Rather than face a head-to-head election, state appellate judges earn a new term in a yes-or-no vote, in which a majority yes vote means they serve another 10-year term unless they turn 75 before then. These races normally attract little attention, and subsequent terms are almost always approved.

The only exception since Pennsylvania adopted its current constitution is state Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro, who was denied a second term in 2005 after lawmakers voted to increase legislative and judicial salaries in a late-night vote. Nigro had nothing to do with the pay hike, but was nonetheless defeated amid widespread public anger.

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