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HARRISBURG — The winner of the Nov. 7 election for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will help determine the balance of the court in coming years, and Democrats are backing Daniel McCaffery, currently a judge on the state Superior Court.
The state Supreme Court is the final stop for lawsuits in Pennsylvania. The court has seven members, and they get the final word on legal questions about everything from election policy to abortion. They also oversee the commonwealth’s other courts and regulate the legal profession, including administering the state bar and disciplining lawyers who violate ethics rules.
McCaffery will face Republican Carolyn Carluccio, currently a judge in Montgomery County.
As the election approaches, here’s all the background voters should know about McCaffery:
Who is Daniel McCaffery?
McCaffery, a Philadelphia native, was elected in 2019 to the Superior Court, Pennsylvania’s appellate body that handles all criminal and some civil appeals from the Courts of Common Pleas.
He joined the military at age 18 and was honorably discharged after serving three years. He then attended Temple University for his undergraduate degree and law school.
McCaffery began his professional career at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office as a prosecutor in the Major Trials Unit in 1991, where he worked for six years. He then joined Montgomery County law firm Friedman Schuman, where he chaired the litigation department and served on its management committee until he joined the Court of Common Pleas in 2013.
Reputation, rulings, and politics
McCaffery is “Highly Recommended” by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which wrote that he has “sound knowledge of legal principles” and a history of “community involvement.”
In his PBA questionnaire, McCaffery wrote that he aims to “approach every case in a non-partisan manner.”
McCaffery also wrote that his most important decisions include opinions in which he argued that law enforcement officers should be limited when conducting voluntary searches and that a plaintiff should have the right to a trial after she suffered an injury while riding in an Uber despite agreeing to the service’s terms and agreement.
His older brother is former state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, who resigned from the post after a review by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office found he had sent sexually explicit images and videos to state officials through his government email. Daniel McCaffery, who was then a Common Pleas judge in Philadelphia, was among the recipients.
McCaffery has a long history in Democratic politics, having volunteered as legal counsel for the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee and been a member of the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee. That political record lost him an endorsement from the Philadelphia Inquirer during the primary, which backed his opponent and wrote that McCaffery is “enmeshed in party politics.”
He was named in 2014 news reports detailing then-Attorney General Kathleen Kane ending a sting operation that had captured Philadelphia lawmakers illegally accepting money. McCaffery, who like many Democrats had been a Kane supporter, had accepted some of those illegal “straw” donations (in which a person obfuscates their political contributions by donating through other people) during his unsuccessful 2009 bid for Philadelphia district attorney. McCaffery’s campaign returned the checks and reported the incident after discovering the donations were improper.
McCaffery was endorsed by the state’s Democratic Party a few months after he announced his candidacy. He won the primary with 60% of the vote against his opponent, Superior Court Judge Deborah Kunselman.
McCaffery also received endorsements from trade organizations such as the Pennsylvania Conference of Teamsters and the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council.
In a survey he filled out during his 2019 Superior Court run, McCaffery said U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts represents his judicial philosophy.
At a candidate forum hosted by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts during the primary, McCaffery said he’s running for state Supreme Court because he believes democratic institutions such as the judiciary are under duress. He said he thinks his decades of service on the bench and unique life experiences make him the best candidate for the position.
“I think our courts right now have been politicized,” McCaffery said at the forum. “It's a combination of life experience and judicial experience and legal experience that makes me want to run for this particular spot.”
Fundraising has picked up for both Supreme Court candidates in the final weeks of the campaign.
McCaffrey reported receiving $1.4 million in the last campaign finance report he filed before the election — primarily from donations — compared with the roughly $2 million he had received in the previous months of the campaign. The bulk of his money comes from the state Democratic Party, labor unions, and associations representing trial attorneys.
Those donations, however, don’t capture all of the financial support that McCaffery is receiving. They are significantly bolstered by independent expenditures from outside groups.
Independent expenditures are made without consultation with the campaign they’re supporting. The biggest group spending to support McCaffery, which is tied to the same labor and party interests that donated to the campaign, isn’t yet completely reflected in state reports.
Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness, a group that registered with the state this spring, has raised $5.2 million and spent nearly $4 million over the last month on Democrats’ statewide judicial candidates, according to its most recent campaign finance report shared by the group’s treasurer, election law attorney Adam Bonin.
Around $600,000 from PJF is already reflected in the commonwealth’s list of independent expenditures on McCaffrey’s behalf, but much is not. Bonin, however, said most of the funding is focused on the Supreme Court race.
In a statement to Spotlight PA, he framed the money as a reaction to the heavy spending from Pennsylvania’s richest man, Jeff Yass, and the Commonwealth Leaders Fund, describing PJF’s goals as “stopping Republicans from taking back the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” and offsetting “the billionaires who are trying to elect anti-abortion, anti-democracy Republican judges.”
According to data shared by AdImpact, a firm that tracks television ads, at least $3.2 million of PJF’s spending has been used to reserve TV ads in favor of McCaffery or attacking Carluccio.
Among the group’s top donors are unions — including those representing state workers, teachers, and service workers — the association representing Philadelphia trial lawyers, abortion provider Planned Parenthood, and a number of out-of-state donors and national dark money groups.
Around $800,000 more in independent expenditures on McCaffery’s behalf have come from groups like the ACLU and the Working Families Party, and include ads and mailers attacking Carluccio.
Asked about his planned recusal policy as a justice during a forum with the nonprofit advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts ahead of the primary election, McCaffery did not pledge to recuse himself from any case involving a donor. Instead, he said he would recuse himself from cases with “actual conflict,” and that when an attorney or party asks him to recuse, he plans to “take a look at the allegations of impropriety” and “recuse where necessary.”
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