Last week Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform -- an independent group with ties to traditionally Democratic constituencies -- launched a TV campaign and website targeting the Republicans running for three state Supreme Court seats up for grabs this November.
Today, the state Republican Party is striking back with a website of its own, www.specialinterestjudges.com, purporting to offer unpleasant facts about the Democratic slate.
The site blasts the Democrats as a group for receiving large campaign contributions from unions and lawyers, while also attacking the three candidates individually.
It criticizes Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue for her campaign team, which allegedly includes, well, Democrats ... and a consultant who committed fraud in another race. Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty, meanwhile, takes a drubbing for his handling of a 2002 custody case in which he apparently placed a child in the custody of her aunt, a convicted murderer.
The site also raises prior allegations of wrongdoing involving famed pathologist Cyril Wecht, father of candidate and Superior Court Judge David Wecht, including accusations that county workers were tapped to assist his son's campaign events. As Pittsburghers no doubt remember, all the charges against the elder Wecht were ultimately dropped by prosecutors after a trial ended in a hung jury.
The site also provides photographic documentation to suggest that Judge Wecht has funky taste in eyewear.
Both Judge Donohue and Judge Wecht, who attended a judicial forum in Homewood Tuesday evening with Judge Dougherty, said they hadn't seen the site. But after having its criticisms described to him, Judge Wecht said it was "pathetic and despicable that the Republican Party is attacking an 84-year-old man who has done more for this community than any man alive."
Judge Wecht called the charges against his father "trumped up" and accused the US Attorney who brought the case, Mary Beth Buchanan, of pursuing a "vendetta."
"I never put it past the privileged, entitled, bitter people who run the Republican Party apparatus to engage in negative campaigning and ad hominem attacks," he said.
Judge Donohue was more restrained, saying "I don't believe negative ads have any place in these campaigns" and that "voters deserve better."
Judge Dougherty's campaign, meanwhile, issued a statement from spokesman Ken Snyder, who urged voters to "rely on recommendations of Kevin Dougherty by bi-partisan and credible groups that know him best, and reject smears." It noted that the judge had been endorsed by law-and-order groups including police unions.
The case cited by the GOP is apparently also the subject of an ad forthcoming from the Republican State Leadership Committee, an independent-expenditure group much like Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform. (The latter group has, in fact, already issued a rebuttal to the Republican take on the case.) And it's a painful story.
Media accounts suggest it involved a 10-year-old girl involved in a truancy case who was placed with an aunt -- an aunt who'd previously been convicted of imprisoning her sister's boyfriend in a closet, where he starved to death. Nearly a decade after the 2002 placement, the aunt was accused of abusing her niece -- and of keeping four mentally challenged adults in the basement, so she could collect their Social Security checks.
Judge Dougherty had placed the girl with her aunt, but his campaign contends he did so on the recommendation of city officials and the family itself. The judge has maintained from the outset that he was never informed of the aunt's criminal past. And while his early statements to that effect drew umbrage from city officials, a subsequent lawsuit filed by the niece's mother in 2013 seems to side with him. It places the blame squarely on the city's Department of Human Services for failing to inform the court of the aunt's criminal past, and failing to adequately provide follow-up services. A federal judge later concluded that "no one advised the court that [the aunt] had a criminal conviction"; the case was eventually tossed out.
In any event, you may be hearing more of such allegations soon. Also featured on the GOP site is a 30-second ad faulting the Democrats for being backed by "special interests," though it's unclear when, or whether, the spot will be airing on TV.
"We're not discussing where these are going up," said Megan Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the state GOP. "Right now, we have things online, but I can't confirm or deny whether they are going up on TV."
Would there be more such spots? "I wouldn't be shocked if there were more things coming," she said.
Ms. Sweeney also noted that, well, the other side started it. The Pennsylvanians for Judical Reform spots, she said "changed the tone of the race, and we wanted to be sure voters had all the facts."
In fact, both campaigns use similar tactics: drawing on years-old cases to disparage a judicial career, and tying the other side's candidates to ideological causes -- like unions or anti-abortion groups -- that are unpopular with some voters.
But Judge Wecht rejected the idea that the attacks were equivalent. While he said he opposed the PJR ads, they "are not paid for and not authorized by the Democratic Party." The fact that the GOP itself was using such tactics, he said, "speaks volumes about the Republican Party."