More than $2 million has flowed through the crowded campaign to stock the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

The 18 candidates for judge who appear on this November’s ballot to vie for 10 open seats combined to raise that amount since the beginning of 2021. Some candidates loaned large sums to their own campaigns; some brought in sizable donations from labor unions and other political campaigns; and some received financial support from family members.

Most of the candidates loaned money to their own campaigns, with some loans reaching six figures. The top self-funder was Sabrina Korbel, the legal director of the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, who loaned her campaign $113,000.

Local elected officials made many donations in the race, headlined by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s campaign giving $25,000 to incumbent judge Elliot Howsie’s campaign. 

And then there’s Jessel Costa, a criminal defense attorney who comes from a family of elected officials. Support from his father, state Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, was instrumental in funding Jessel Costa’s bid for judgeship. Jessel Costa’s campaign raised more than $314,000 across the primary and general election campaigns.

A political action committee [PAC] tied to Jay Costa loaned $140,000 to Jessel Costa’s campaign, and the senator took to the streets and to Facebook to stump for his son on a few occasions in the spring. 

In Pennsylvania, judges are chosen in partisan elections that are flooded with cash like any executive or legislative contest. But judicial elections are unlike legislative or executive races in that candidates can raise money through campaign committees but they cannot personally ask for donations. 

The Court of Common Pleas is the bedrock of the state’s judiciary, and these transactions shape an election that will put in place almost a quarter of Allegheny County’s Common Pleas bench.

Deborah Gross, the president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said donations in judicial races are “very dangerous” due to the possibility of influencing a judge’s decisions. She stressed the importance of protocols that guide judges to recuse themselves from cases where there may be a conflict of interest.

Though the idea of electing judges raises alarm among good government advocates, Widener University law professor and election law expert Michael Dimino said it’s no worse than any other system of selecting judges.

“Every other system of judicial selection produces its own set of problems,” Dimino said. “Systems of appointment tend to favor applicants with connections to the appointing authority or to powerful interest groups.”

While the state Supreme Court and appellate courts make decisions that end up in headlines more often, and election coverage often centers on those higher-profile races, the Court of Common Pleas can have the most impact on people’s lives, Gross said. 

“This is one person, a judge, making a decision that could impact health, education, work, living. Judges have a tremendous impact on everybody’s life, and people don’t appreciate that. And they need to get out and vote.”

Self-funding campaigns

Of the $2.12 million raised among the 18 candidates (seven Democrats, seven Republicans, one Green, and three cross-nominated as Democrat and Republican), more than $510,000 came as campaign loans from the candidates themselves. Eleven candidates loaned money to their own campaigns, some reaching six figures.

Here are five notable examples:

  • Anthony DeLuca, a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, loaned his own campaign $103,000. 
  • Tom Caulfield, a magisterial district judge, reported that his campaign raised more than $155,000 — more than half of which came in the form of a loan from himself.
  • Magisterial District Judge Dan Konieczka loaned $100,000 to his own campaign.
  • Lisa Middleman, a public defender who unsuccessfully ran for Allegheny County district attorney in 2019, loaned $26,000 to her campaign.
  • Republican trial lawyer and former prosecutor Chuck Porter loaned $21,800 to his campaign.

Khalif Ali, the director of the good government group Common Cause Pennsylvania, said of the self-funded campaigns that “the most glaring problem is the fact that not everyone can do that.”

“The judge that can fund his or her own campaign with $100,000 or more certainly doesn’t understand or can empathize with the story of someone who has lived in poverty their entire life,” he said. “There could be a struggle to represent the interest of someone in poverty.”

While he noted the drawbacks to candidates self-funding campaigns, Ali said he would rather candidates fund their own campaigns than rely entirely on third-party contributions that could influence them. 

Gross said campaigning is expensive even when candidates don’t lend themselves large sums — the time and effort it takes to campaign isn’t something everyone can afford. “I’m worried about discouraging qualified individuals from seeking judicial positions.”

A senator and his son

Candidates mostly spent money on campaign management, printing, mailing, text messaging, websites and digital and TV ads.

Jessel Costa’s campaign spent more than $154,000 leading up to the primary, including more than $58,000 on video production and TV airtime and more than $45,000 on mailers and postage. Ahead of the general election, the campaign spent almost $22,000 on mail and more than $41,000 on TV and online ads. Much of that was enabled by family financial support.

Other candidates got help from their families, too. Korbel’s campaign got a $10,000 loan from her brother-in-law. DeLuca’s campaign received a $15,000 loan from his wife.

But Jessel Costa’s campaign was the best funded among the 18 candidates at $314,616 overall. The money came through different channels, several of them leading back to his father.

His campaign received $140,000 in a series of loans from a PAC called the 2020 Future Fund, which Jay Costa confirmed to PublicSource is controlled by him.

On top of the 2020 Future Fund loans, Jessel Costa’s campaign received a $5,000 loan and a $5,000 donation from the Committee to Reelect Jay Costa, and $21,800 in donations from Jay Costa’s Senate campaign. He also received $5,000 from Paul Costa’s campaign committee. (Paul, Jay’s brother, served in the state House 1999 to 2018). The Jay Costa campaign also made an in-kind contribution to Jessel Costa’s campaign, $13,200 worth of TV airtime.

Jessel Costa, who previously served as a public defender and state prosecutor, said his activity in the Democratic party since he was a teenager also helped him garner support. 

“I understand that there is financial support in there from my father,” Jessel Costa said. “I have grown up with my father in public service. I have watched, followed, worked with him over the years. I am proud to have his support, financially and personally.”

“But the campaign isn’t about him,” he said, pointing to a number of contributions his campaign received from individuals and other groups. “I think that is kind of representative of the campaign that we’ve been running. We’ve received a broad amount of support ... from political groups, from labor groups, from independent organizations.”

All told, about 58% of Jessel Costa’s campaign contributions in 2021 came from his father’s campaign or his father’s PAC.

“It’s been very exciting for my family and I to see him engaged in the public service sector,” Jay Costa said in an interview. “I’m proud to support him. I’ve supported a number of judges. I was in a position to help Jessel, and that’s what I’ve done.”

The Allegheny County Bar Association, which evaluates and rates judicial candidates ahead of every election based on experience, temperament, integrity and other factors, rated Jessel Costa “unqualified” ahead of both the primary and the general election. He was the only candidate on the November ballot to get that distinction, and one of two who didn’t participate in the bar’s evaluation process. 

A rating of unqualified means the bar’s committee thinks “the candidate does not now possess and is not likely to acquire the ability, reputation or temperament necessary for a judicial position.”

Jessel Costa said the rating must be taken with the context that he refused to participate in the bar’s evaluation because of its practice of giving attorneys with fewer than 10 years of experience an unfavorable rating. “Based on what I thought was an unfair process, I chose not to seek their endorsement,” he said.

Jay Costa echoed his son’s comments on the bar’s process: “It’s not an appropriate standard. The breadth of his experience is different than most people in this race. The rating should be based on quality and not the number of years.”

Joe Williams, the president of the Bar Association, said there is no 10-year rule and candidates are rated “holistically.”

Other interests

Loans from candidates and their family members made up a sizable chunk of the money in this election. The rest of it came from a mix of individuals and other PACs, many of which are run by law firms, labor unions and politicians. A few examples:

  • The Local 66 PAC Club gave $11,000 to Chelsa Wagner’s campaign, $7,500 to the campaign of incumbent Judge Elliot Howsie, $2,000 to Korbel’s campaign, $2,500 to Beemer’s, $2,500 to Konieczka’s, $2,500 to Costa’s and $500 to Wrenna Watson’s.
  • The Western Pennsylvania Laborers 2019 PAC gave $20,000 each to Costa’s campaign, $10,000 to Beemer’s, $5,500 to Korbel’s and $5,000 each to the campaigns of Porter, Howsie and Konieczka.
  • The PAC for law firm Dickie McCamey & Chilcote, where Jay Costa is a partner, gave $1,000 each to the campaigns of Beemer, Wagner, Jessel Costa and Howsie.

The election is Nov. 2. Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. To find your polling place, go to this website. If you requested a mail-in ballot, the county elections division must receive it by 8 p.m. on Nov. 2.

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource's local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.

This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...