HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A historic election year for Pennsylvania's highest court is placing a premium on political endorsements by the state Republican and Democratic parties.
Three of the seven state Supreme Court seats are open - a situation that court officials say is unprecedented - and the outcome of the Nov. 3 election will change the face and quite possibly the partisan lineup of the influential panel.
For the nearly one dozen judges and lawyers jockeying for position in the May 19 primaries, winning a party endorsement is a vital step in orchestrating a successful campaign. It's a party's stamp of confidence in a candidate that gives her or him a leg up - and often the end of the line for those who are not endorsed.
"Every candidate is looking for any item or nugget or thing of value that they can add to their platform to give them a competitive advantage," said Jim Burn, the Democratic State Committee chairman.
Christopher Borick, a political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said an endorsement provides "credibility in your efforts to build a campaign" that helps attract political contributions and volunteers in what is expected to be an unusually competitive and expensive judicial race.
"It's a lot easier to ask someone for cash if you can say the party has vetted me and come to the conclusion that I'm a good candidate," Borick said. "Parties don't want to put up losers."
Bob Bozzuto, the state Republican Party executive director, said the endorsement process also serves to inform rank-and-file party activists across the state who have been interviewing the candidates, often face to face, since late last year.
"Our party members are doing a great deal of work to get to know these candidates" before voting on any endorsements, Bozzuto said.
Over the past decade, Pennsylvania voters have elected three Supreme Court justices. In all three races, both parties endorsed candidates and those candidates handily won the nominations.
But however helpful endorsements may be to candidates, the political strength and large number of candidates for the high court could make the primaries more confusing for voters, whose knowledge about judicial candidates is limited in the first place by ethical rules that limit what they may say.
"It's more of a crap shoot. ... The more candidates there are, the more important ballot position becomes," said Lynn Marks, director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a judicial reform advocacy group.
Two of the high-court openings stem from scandals: Justice Joan Orie Melvin resigned in 2013 after being convicted of using government staff members to campaign, and Justice Seamus McCaffery resigned last year after being implicated in a pornographic email scandal. The other vacancy resulted from the recent departure of Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 last year.
Republicans, who are defending a one-seat majority on the Supreme Court, voted Saturday to endorse two state appellate judges and a county judge to fill the open seats. Almost immediately, two other candidates - both appellate judges - vowed to take on the party slate in the primary.
Democrats are to consider endorsements in a field of six candidates when they gather in Hershey on Feb. 21. Democratic endorsements are more elusive because they require a two-thirds majority vote - a rule that helped prevent the party from endorsing a gubernatorial candidate in contested primaries in 2014 and 2010.
G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said endorsements in judicial races simply don't matter much to voters.
"Precious few will actually know much about these candidates," he said.
Peter Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org