Deborah Kunselman and Daniel McCaffery are running in the Democratic primary for one judgeship on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on May 16. The winner will face the Republican nominee—either Patricia McCullough or Carolyn Tornetta Carluccio—in the general election on Nov. 7. The filing deadline for the primary was March 7.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the state’s court of last resort, and justices run in partisan elections for 10-year terms. After a judge’s first term, he or she must run in a retention election to serve subsequent terms. The winner of this election will succeed Justice Max Baer (D), who passed away on Sept. 30, 2022. Baer’s term expired in 2023, and he could not run for re-election since Pennsylvania judges must retire at the end of the calendar year in which they reach 75 years of age.
The state supreme court can hear appeals from both statewide and local courts and assume jurisdiction over any case in the Pennsylvania court system. Peter Hall of the Pittsburgh City Paper wrote, “The Supreme Court hears appeals in cases involving unsettled areas of the law, reviews all death penalty convictions, and has played the decisive role in redrawing Pennsylvania’s congressional districts in recent years.”
As Kate Huangpu wrote for Spotlight PA, “The state’s primaries are closed, meaning only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote for candidates during these spring contests. (Unaffiliated and third-party voters can, however, vote on ballot questions, other referendums, and special elections during a primary.)”
Kunselman is a judge on the Pennsylvania Superior Court, a position to which she was elected in 2017. She also worked as an attorney, a solicitor with Beaver County, and was first elected as a judge in Beaver County in 2006. Kunselman emphasizes her judicial experience in her campaign, saying on her website that she had “the most experience of any candidate for the Supreme Court with 17 years as a judge” and had “developed expertise in Civil, Family, Juvenile, and Criminal court.”
McCaffery is also a judge on the Pennsylvania Superior Court, a position to which he was elected in 2019. He is an Army veteran and worked as an attorney, an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, and was first elected as a judge in Philadelphia in 2013. McCaffery also emphasizes his judicial experience, saying on his website, “Assigned to one of the busiest trial divisions in Pennsylvania, Judge McCaffery presided over one hundred jury trials and thousands of bench trials…McCaffery is currently the supervising judge for wiretaps and was selected by the Supreme Court to serve on the Court of Judicial Discipline.”
Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party endorsed McCaffery at a meeting of state party committee members on Jan. 29.
The partisan balance of the court changed as a result of the 2015 elections from a 4-3 Republican majority to a 5-2 Democratic majority when Justices Kevin M. Dougherty (D), David Wecht (D) and Christine Donohue (D) were elected to three open seats. The partisan composition of the court cannot change as a result of the 2023 election.
Kate Huangpu and Stephen Caruso wrote for Spotlight PA that “Justices elected as Democrats have been in the majority since 2015, and flipping the court back has been a top Republican priority since then. The seven-member court is currently composed of four Democrats and two Republicans.”
The most recent state supreme court election in Pennsylvania was in 2021, when Kevin Brobson (R) defeated Maria McLaughlin (D), 52% to 48%. Brobson’s election did not change the partisan composition of the court since he succeeded Justice Thomas Saylor (R), who did not run for another term because he turned 75 in 2021.
The next scheduled state supreme court elections in Pennsylvania will take place in 2025 when the three Democratic justices first elected in 2015 will be up for re-election. Unless there are unexpected vacancies, 2025 is the first year that the partisan balance of the court can change from a Democratic to a Republican majority.