This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The results of Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court election could have wide-ranging implications for a number of high-profile cases related to education issues.
Three Democrats swept the open seats on the state’s highest court – shifting the balance of power to 5-2 in the party’s favor when they assume the bench in January.
Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue, 62, of Pittsburgh; Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty, 53; and Superior Court Judge David Wecht, 55, of Pittsburgh defeated their Republican opponents and one independent.
Traditional public education advocates closely followed the race, anticipating that a shake-up in favor of the Democrats could mean rulings favorable to their interests.
The biggest education-related case that the new court is expected to hear will be one brought by the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center that asserts that the legislative and executive branches of state government have failed to deliver "a thorough and efficient" education to all children, as promised in Pennsylvania’s Constitution.
In April, the Commonwealth Court dismissed the case, arguing that education funding should be decided by the legislature, not the judiciary. The two law centers appealed to the Supreme Court in May. The plaintiffs contend that the state has skated on its constitutional obligation by adopting content standards and performance expectations without providing the funding needed to meet them.
Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, expects the new justices will be more inclined to agree with the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the law.
"I think that having a change on the court, having a court that’s more friendly to the idea of an expansive view of rights, is a really good thing," said Gobreski. "Because education has become a partisan issue, and because we elect judges, it’s hard not to say that a partisan approach has an impact on issues."
Veteran pollster and Franklin & Marshall College political scientist G. Terry Madonna said that, historically, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has not acted as a partisan body.
In 2012, former Chief Justice Ron Castille broke from his fellow Republican justices to reject the legislature’s first attempt at redistricting after the 2010 census. Ultimately, a revised redistricting plan was unanimously approved in 2013.
Recently, the court unanimously voted to strip Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, of her law license.
But with Tuesday’s election, Madonna sees a changing tide.