One man's spending is dominating Pa. judicial races. Who is he, and why is this election important?
HARRISBURG — A political group almost entirely funded by Pennsylvania's richest resident has contributed one out of every three dollars raised this year by candidates running in critical statewide judicial races.
The group, Commonwealth Leaders Fund, has spent over $2.7 million, the vast majority to support just one candidate: Montgomery County judge Carolyn Carluccio, a Republican running for a seat on the state Supreme Court.
The position comes with great power. In recent years, the high court threw out the state’s congressional map for being overtly partisan, allowed a lawsuit challenging the state’s education funding system to go to trial, and upheld the state’s mail voting law.
Appellate court races in Pennsylvania have become increasingly high-profile — and expensive — since 2015. That year, Democrats flipped the state’s high court after spending $15.8 million to win three open seats. Republicans see this year’s race as a must-win as they move to retake control of the court by as early as 2025.
From the beginning of the year through late September, the eight major party candidates for Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Courts collectively raised $8.3 million.
Much of that money can be traced to libertarian billionaire Jeff Yass, co-founder of the stock trading company Susquehanna International Group and an advocate for alternatives to public schools.
Individuals and committees can make unlimited political donations under Pennsylvania’s relatively lax campaign finance law, and Yass, who has a roughly $28.5 billion net worth, has embraced that permissiveness.
He does not directly donate to candidates. Instead, he contributes money to his own political action committee, Students First. That committee gives money to another PAC, this one controlled by Matt Brouillette, a conservative activist-turned-GOP power player. That group then contributes to Commonwealth Leaders Fund.
Even in an odd-year election, Yass’ dollars flow everywhere, popping up in municipal races in Philadelphia and Allegheny County and in contests for statewide benches, said Eric Rosso, a leftist Philadelphia political operative who has closely tracked Yass’ political activity.
“The fact that he is one of the biggest, almost sole, investor in the Supreme Court should raise red flags to anybody who cares about the integrity of government,” Rosso said.
In a statement, Brouillette, treasurer of Commonwealth Leaders Fund, said the group supports Carluccio because “she is a highly qualified judge who will uphold the Constitution, apply the law as written, and not make decisions based on partisan ideology.”
Traditional Democratic donors, such as the associations representing trial lawyers and many trade unions, have also thrown big money behind that party’s candidates.
As the Nov. 7 election approaches, expect more cash to flow to these candidates and to efforts to raise awareness about the stakes of the races.
Other outside groups may influence the election in its closing weeks through independent expenditures, which are done without the knowledge or consent of the political campaign they hope to aid. For instance, abortion provider Planned Parenthood’s political arm has promised to spend six figures on independent ads targeting Carluccio.
Reports of such spending, which can include TV ads, political mail, or paid canvassing, aren't due until Election Day.
One seat is vacant on the state Supreme Court, which has the final say on legal issues ranging from election policy to abortion access, because of the death of Chief Justice Max Baer, who was first elected as a Democrat, last fall. Judges elected as Democrats currently have a 4-2 majority on the seven-member court.
Democrat Daniel McCaffery has raised $2 million since the beginning of the year, while Republican candidate Carluccio has raked in $3.4 million during the same time period, $2.1 million of which has come from Commonwealth Leaders Fund.
Carluccio has primarily received in-kind contributions, which are nonmonetary goods or services that a group gives to candidates with the campaign's consent.
Commonwealth Leaders Fund has primarily supported Carluccio by paying for mail and TV ads that boost her profile or attack McCaffery. Mail ads paid for by the fund have accused McCaffery of partisanship and of receiving “smutty” emails at his official government address. In 2014, McCaffery, then a Common Pleas Court judge in Philadelphia, received two emails from his brother Seamus — then a state Supreme Court justice — including sexually explicit content, The Inquirer reported at the time.
Other ads have praised Carluccio as a “fair judge” and touted her endorsements from the PA Pro-Life Federation and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
Judicial candidates in Pennsylvania operate under special rules, said Sam Chen, a GOP political operative based in the Lehigh Valley. They cannot directly share their political opinions and cannot ask directly anyone for a donation, so they instead leave fundraising to campaign staff.
That makes the races harder to sell to traditional, individual donors, and encourages big political groups to flex their monetary muscle, Chen said.
“When you have the opportunity to collaborate with an outside group that wants to help you, like Commonwealth [Leaders Fund], you definitely take the opportunity if you are the candidate,” he said.
That strategy has paid off in the past. Commonwealth Leaders Fund provided roughly two-thirds of Supreme Court Justice Kevin Brobson’s $3.4 million campaign coffer in 2021. Brobson, who ran as a Republican, won an open seat on the bench by less than a percentage point.
In a statement, Carluccio spokesperson Rob Brooks said that “while I can’t speak for Commonwealth Leaders Fund, I suspect they too are interested in electing Justices of the Supreme Court who will apply and uphold the law only and reject judicial activism.”
Carluccio also received $75,000 from the PA Future Fund — a political action committee connected to GOP power player Bob Asher — and donated at least $25,000 to her own campaign.
McCaffery, a current Superior Court judge, has brought in just over $2 million this year. Of that, $750,000 came from Committee for a Better Tomorrow, a PAC run by the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association. Another $250,000 was donated by the PA Judicial PAC, which is the fundraising arm of the statewide trial attorneys association.
McCaffery also raised a sizable amount from organized labor: around $400,000 from a slew of trade unions such as the Greater PA Carpenters PAC — the political fundraising wing of a statewide association of carpenters — the Mid-Atlantic Laborer’s Political League, and Philadelphia’s International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98.
He also received $72,000 from the state Democratic Party in the form of an in-kind contribution that paid for mail ads and postage.
One of two intermediate appellate courts, Superior Court hears appeals on criminal trials and handles high-profile criminal cases such as the trial of Bill Cosby.
Two of the 15 seats on Superior Court will be on the ballot this November, so each major party is offering two candidates.
The four candidates have collectively raised around $1.8 million, the bulk of which went to Democratic candidate Jill Beck.
All told, the two Democratic candidates raised about six times the amount of funds as their Republican counterparts.
Beck, a commercial litigation attorney, raised about $1 million. More than $186,000 came from the state Democratic Party in the form of in-kind contributions that went toward design, production, and postage, according to campaign finance reports.
She also received $125,000 from the Committee for a Better Tomorrow and about $230,000 from union and labor organizations for operating engineers, painters, and metalworkers, among others. Beck also received smaller donations from political organizations such as Conservation Voters of PA and Progressive Women of NEPA.
The second Democrat, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Timika Lane, raised nearly $580,000 in total, with over a third of the funds coming from the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, which donated $200,000. She also received around $115,000 in donations from unions.
Lane received smaller donations, under $3,000, from organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 PAC and the PA Democratic State Committee Women's Caucus PAC.
Republican candidates Maria Battista and Harry Smail have raised around $250,000 collectively since the beginning of the year. Commonwealth Leaders Fund has not donated to these candidates.
Battista, who previously worked as general counsel for various state agencies, raised just $143,000, the bulk of which was a $50,000 donation from Martin Judge — chair and founder of the Judge Group, a business technology consulting organization. She also received about $10,000 from the Pennsylvania Republican Party, mostly in the form of in-kind donations, which paid for campaign literature and postage. She also received a $250 donation from former Trump ambassador to Denmark and previous U.S. Senate candidate Carla Sands.
Smail, a Westmoreland County Common Pleas judge, raised a similar amount, just under $110,000, over the course of the year.
Major donors included the For-Ward PAC — the fundraising committee of state Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland), which is chaired by her husband — which gave $27,000. The Pennsylvania Republican Party gave Smail just under $10,000 in the form of an in-kind donation for printing and postage.
One of two intermediate appellate courts, Commonwealth Court hears cases relating to administrative and civil law. It is often the first court to take a look at cases concerning critical issues like redistricting and election administration. The nine-member court is also responsible for hearing cases involving state governments or agencies.
The fundraising disparities between the two candidates for this race are huge, with Commonwealth Leaders Fund playing a major role.
Republican Megan Martin, the state Senate’s former parliamentarian, has raised just over $850,000 since the beginning of the year. The largest donation — nearly $600,000 — came from Commonwealth Leaders Fund as in-kind contributions for campaign mail.
Martin received around $46,000 from her former state Senate colleagues, including from the campaign committees of prominent members like Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), Scott Martin (R., Lancaster), and Joe Pittman (R., Armstrong). The Pennsylvania Republican Party also donated nearly $10,000 in the form of an in-kind contribution to pay for mailing and postage.
Martin also raised $16,000 from union organizations such as the Mid-Atlantic Laborers, Boilermakers Local 154, and the Western Pennsylvania Laborers.
Democratic candidate Matt Wolf, a Philadelphia municipal court judge, has raised just under $200,000 since the beginning of the year. His largest donor was the Greater PA Carpenters PAC, which gave him about $65,000 in total. Wolf also received about $45,000 from other union and labor organizations for plumbers, transport workers, and plasterer and cement masons.
Wolf also received a $25,000 donation from Committee for a Better Tomorrow and gave his own campaign about $50,000.