(York) -- Almost $340,000 was spent during the York County Court of Common Pleas race in 2015 -- an increase of more than 40 percent from the last election, which featured fewer candidates, according to a York Daily Record/Sunday News analysis of campaign finance records.
Candidates and their committees on Monday had to file their last reports in the campaign. The amount of money spent is not the most in recent years -- that came back in 2009, when expenditures exceeded $405,000. That election included two more candidates than in 2015.
For some who donate in the local elections, it's about supporting people they believe are reasonable: While judges have to be impartial and follow the law, there are calls they have to make.
"I just believe in the person's character, integrity and legal skill," said Chris Ferro, a defense attorney in York, who donated $350 overall to candidates in the local race, "and want to support their effort to better the judiciary."
As spending reaches new levels in the statewide races -- the Pennsylvania Supreme Court election was the most expensive judicial contest ever in the United States -- there's been a renewed push to change how those judges are selected. That comes amid concerns with the amount of outside money spent and scandals within those positions.
Money in 2015 York County judicial race
Common Pleas Judge Chris Menges led all judicial candidates in York County in spending. His campaign committee reported total expenditures of almost $112,500.
Menges also was the largest contributor in the election, giving more than $93,350 to his campaign committee between 2014 and 2015. The next largest donor in the race was Common Pleas Judge Mike Flannelly, who gave more than $16,500 to his committee.
Meanwhile, Carl Anderson reported to the state that he both raised and spent less than $250. So, he did not have to file for that reporting period.
When people run for judge, they cannot start raising money until after the general election in the previous year. Candidates are also not allowed to personally solicit or accept donations.
Kathleen Prendergast, who finished about 6,325 votes behind Menges for the second open seat on the York County Court of Common Pleas, said as a candidate here, you have to almost create different marketing strategies for parts of the county.
It's also difficult, she said, to educate voters against just pulling the party lever.
She's a registered Republican. But, because of how the primary worked out, she ended up appearing on the general election ballot as a Democrat -- a party that has almost 35,500 fewer registered voters in York County.
Most people in the court system aren't allowed to get involved in politics, she said. On the campaign trail, Prendergast said, she was asked some questions not related to the position -- including who she supported in the presidential election.
"In a perfect world, I really think elections would be good," Prendergast said. "I think there's some questions that aren't necessary relevant to the job of judge. And that can get a little frustrating."
Why donate in judicial elections?
Sean Summers, an attorney in York who gave $400 during the most recent campaign to Neil Slenker's campaign -- as well as $100 each to Prendergast and Flannelly -- said the best quality for judges to have is reasonableness. Summers unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2012, and said he also understands how difficult it is to raise money.
Though some lawyers avoid donating to any candidates, Summers said he hasn't seen any issues with backlash in York County. Depending on your field, he said it's possible you'll never be in front of a certain judge.
David Greisler, an assistant professor at York College, served on the steering committee of Slenker's campaign, and contributed $3,000 to him. Greisler said he's known Slenker for about nine years, as their sons played Little League.
Looking at the bench, Greisler said he felt that an attorney who has experience in business law would help the community. He's also known Slenker to be a "man of character."
"Does a person's values, the values, come into play in interpreting the law?" Greisler said. "Justice is to be blind. But where there are choices, I think the values of the judge are just hugely important."
'I do think it's a conversation we should have'
Pennsylvania sits in the minority of states in that people initially elect judges on the trial and appellate court levels in partisan elections. Once on the bench, they run for retention -- a yes or no vote.
In the Pennsylvania Supreme Court race, approximately $15.9 million was spent before Election Day, according to an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice, and the advocacy organization Justice at Stake. There are no limits here on contributions from individuals or political action committees.
"What's happened is, even after this ever-increasing amount of money spent, what have Pennsylvanians gotten?" said Lynn Marks, the executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonprofit watchdog organization, of the statewide races.
"They've gotten scandal after scandal, and jurists' campaign coffers are flowing from the very same lawyers and litigants that will appear before them."
Right now, there's a proposal in the Legislature that would change how judges in statewide positions are picked.
Under that system, a 13-member, bipartisan commission would review and recommend candidates to the governor. If confirmed, they'd serve for four years. Then, each would run for a 10-year term.
State Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, is one of the sponsors of the bill that would move toward the system. The bill made it out of the House Judiciary Committee by a 16-11 vote in October.
To build support for the bill, he said the proposal was limited to the statewide positions. Many people know their local judges and want to have input, Cutler said, which is something he respects. Those running for the statewide offices are also more likely relying on the party structure, he said.
Cutler said though the process would not be completely "apolitical," it strikes an appropriate balance. Because the change would require a constitutional amendment, the people would ultimately decide -- if the measure passes in the Legislature in two consecutive sessions.
"Regardless of how we feel as individuals, I do think it's a conversation we should have," he said. "I think it's good to review our current process -- and make sure it's still reflective of what the people want."
Top five donors in the 2015 York County Court of Common Pleas race:
Charges related to campaign contributions:
The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office on Dec. 23 filed a charge against David Stewart, 47, the CEO of the construction conglomerate the Stewart Cos. -- as well as York Building Products -- alleging he reimbursed executives for campaign contributions.
Stewart, as well as employees of the company, contributed $9,750 in the 2015 York County Court of Common Pleas race, according to campaign finance reports.
*This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record
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