Pa. judges worrying shutdown may imperil re-election chances

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The federal government shutdown, which has already cost the U.S. economy billions and sent the popularity of Congress swirling further down the drain, could threaten the judicial careers of some of Pennsylvania's top judges, too.

Voter anger over the shutdown could make re-election prospects unusually worrisome for two on the Supreme Court and two on Superior Court come Nov. 5. The odds are still good that voters will retain them, but polling shows voter angst is so great that it is turning what is usually a slam-dunk exhibition into a play-for-keeps nail-biter.

The judges face retention every 10 years and thus suffer from unlucky timing. While they had nothing to do with fights over President Barack Obama's health care legislation or extending the nation's debt limit, they just happen to be the first statewide names to go before voters since the fights triggered a bitter governmental timeout.

"I'd be really uneasy," said Muhlenberg College political scientist Chris Borick, "thinking how to counter the sour mood among the electorate, and not be a casualty of it."

Months before things went bad in Congress, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer hired a political consulting company to help with his retention race, even though they generally go unnoticed. It was more of a precaution than anything, he said, to ensure that if some national interest group days before the election attempted to get voters to turn on him, he'd be prepared.

About three weeks ago, the group came to him and suggested they do a poll to get a feel for voters. The poll was conducted, the justice said, at the same time as the federal shutdown and heightened concerns about the national debit limit.

"There was this raging anger and frustration in the public against incumbents," Justice Baer said.

Normally, retention results favor the incumbent by about 70 to 30 percent. His pollsters suggest it could be much closer next month, like 55 to 45.

Concerned by the results, the consulting firm suggested the justice put together a commercial to air, emphasizing his work regarding children's issues. "They felt because of this generalized frustration with government, the retention election was not going to be the sleeper that it normally is," Justice Baer said. Instead it could turn into "an anti-incumbency vote."

Earlier this week, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, who also is up for retention, did his own limited media tour in Western Pennsylvania as he was in Pittsburgh for a National Legal Services Corp. forum.

Superior Court judges Susan Gantman and Jack Panella -- who have both served since 2004 -- are also up for retention.

Only once in 200 years has a Supreme Court justice lost a retention bid. Russell M. Nigro lost in November 2005, in the fallout from voter outrage over pay raises given to the state Legislature and judiciary in July of that year.

Citizens groups formed to fight the pay raise, which was passed by the Legislature in the middle of the night, lobbied hard for the ouster of the justices up that year. Only Justice Nigro lost. Fellow Justice Sandra Schultz-Newman survived in a 54 to 46 percent vote.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week showed three-quarters of respondents nationwide are dissatisfied with the U.S. political system, with 40 percent saying they are very dissatisfied. In a CNN poll released Monday, 70 percent said the current members of Congress should not be re-elected, and a Wednesday Fox News survey found nearly half of voters thought a random selection of voters off the street could perform better than their elected representatives.

Yet "there is no interest and no awareness of voters in retention," said Franklin & Marshall professor of public affairs Terry Madonna. Pennsylvania voters "know precious little about the candidates and their records. Could only the issue of a sufficient groundswell of historically ill will toward the political class, including judges, be enough to cause them to lose?"

Keith Schmidt, a consultant working with Justice Castille in his campaign, is less concerned about the furor over the shutdown affecting Pennsylvania's races. Instead, he suspects it might simply decrease voter turnout.

Generally, Mr. Schmidt said, those who vote in traditionally low-turnout municipal elections are more civic-minded, and are likely to understand that a judicial retention race in Pennsylvania has nothing to do with the federal government shutdown or debt ceiling.

More than that, he continued, there is no concerted effort working against retention this year. Successful no votes, Mr. Schmidt said, require "lots of money, lots of attention and lots of articles."

Justice Castille is further supported by endorsements by the Democratic and Republican state committees and the political action committee for the Pennsylvania Business Council.

"I can see why 'no' votes are up a little, but there's no chance it will be enough to make a difference," Mr. Schmidt said. "There's no money behind it and only a few days left."

Paula Reed Ward:, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. Tim McNulty:, 412-263-1581 or @EarlyReturns.

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