Dougherty trying to restore confidence in Supreme Court

Long journey: Bustleton’s Kevin Dougherty is vying for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. SOURCE: KATHARINE GILBERT, DOUGHERTY CAMPAIGN

Want fireworks? The 2015 Pennsylvania Supreme Court election has got them. But only time will tell if the drama in this year’s historic seven-way contest will captivate a historically indifferent electorate.

Pennsylvania has about 8.3 million registered voters. Yet, in 2009, Republican Joan Orie Melvin needed just 925,000 votes to defeat Democrat Jack Panella for the lone available seat on the seven-member court.

In 2007 when two seats were in play, the four nominees garnered about 4 million votes with Democrats Seamus McCaffery (1.2 million) and Debra Todd (1.1 million) leading the pack.

Next Tuesday, Nov. 3, South Philly native and Bustleton resident Kevin Dougherty will be one of seven candidates vying for three open Supreme Court seats. It’s the first time in more than three centuries that Pennsylvania’s highest court will see such a large turnover at one time.

Part of the shortage has been self-inflicted with Melvin and McCaffery each having resigned amid well-documented dubious circumstances. Chief Justice Ron Castille left the third vacancy last year when he reached age 70, the mandatory retirement age.

Castille and McCaffery are both Northeast Philly residents. Their departures left the court without any Philadelphia-area representation and left Republicans with a minimal 3–2 majority on the court.

So, with three new justices to be determined on Tuesday, the election portends a lasting impact on the prevailing political posture of the court, as well as the outcome of the next legislative redistricting process that will commence following the 2020 census. It also may give a clue about how voters may lean after three additional seats will become open due to mandatory retirements in 2016, ’17 and ’18.

Dougherty sat down with the Northeast Times earlier this month to discuss his campaign, his career and the future of the court.

Northeast Times: It’s been a long campaign. What’s it been like running statewide?

Kevin Dougherty: It has been a very long journey. Pennsylvania is an extremely large state. But I have found whether I’m in Pittston; Hometown, Pennsylvania; Erie; or in Fox Chase, everybody has the same interests and concerns. They’re concerned about their families. They’re concerned about their livelihoods. And they’re concerned about safety in their communities. That’s the most interesting thing. It’s so commonsensical, but you just don’t realize it, that we really are all the same.

NT: Please tell us a bit about yourself.

KD: I am 53 years old. I was born in South Philadelphia at Second and Jackson. I’m what they call a Two-Streeter. I grew up in Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish, was educated by the Sisters of Mercy. I had the good fortune of attending what was Bishop Neumann at the time. He became a saint when I was there, so I graduated from St. John Neumann. I went to Temple as a commuter student. As I’ve often said on the campaign trail, I was the first in my family to go to college. I’m married. My wife Lisa and I just had our 24th anniversary. My son Sean is 21 and my daughter Katie is 16. He’s a senior at Chestnut Hill College and she’s a junior at St. Basil’s.

NT: And you live in the Bustleton section of the Northeast?

KD: I’ve been there for 15 years. So while I was born and raised in South Philly, my children are raised in the Northeast.

NT: What have you done in your law career?

KD: I attended a small progressive law school in Washington, D.C., (the Antioch School of Law). It’s a public interest law school. After law school, my first job was back here as an assistant district attorney. I served there for five to six years and I left after trying major jury criminal trials. My partner, Steve Marino, and I then opened up our own private practice. I did criminal defense and family law as well as anything that came through the door. I had an opportunity in 2001 when in Philadelphia we had 11 vacancies on our Common Pleas Court bench. I was one of 33 lawyers seeking that position and had the good fortune of coming in number one on both the Democrat and Republican tickets (in the primary).

NT: Gov. Ridge appointed you to Common Pleas Court after the primary, but you had to run in the general election anyway to win a full 10-year term.

KD: And I do believe judges should be elected. I’ve learned that it’s important that people get to see you, look you in the eye, ask you questions and determine whether they think you’re telling the truth. I’m not a big fan of having judges selected in a conference room by committees, because you’re talking about politics within politics there. At least (with an election) you know what you have. The difficulty is in having the banner of a particular political party, you’re automatically broad-brushed. (Judges) are not politicians. We’re public servants. It’s about whether voters think that I think like they do.

NT: Once on Common Pleas Court, you requested an assignment with the Family Court?

KD: I did. My dad worked for the Family Court as a court officer for 36 years. So when I was a kid when we had off from school, I sat in the back of a courtroom and watched the different things that could happen in juvenile court. I think that’s where the seeds were planted. After entering a career in law, I felt if I was going to truly have an indelible impact on changing people, that was the place to do it.

NT: What is Philadelphia’s legacy on the Supreme Court?

KD: At this point in time, there is not one Philadelphia justice sitting on a seven-person Supreme Court. It is the highest court in the land and we are the largest, biggest city — not only in Pennsylvania, but we’re the fifth-largest city in the country. It’s somewhat startling to think that our presence and our way of life as we know it would not be represented on that court.

NT: In terms of the court vacancies, what’s at stake in this election?

KD: This is the first time in 311 years that there have been three vacancies on this court. Back then, it was called the Provincial Appellate Court. William Penn was the governor and the King of England made the decision who and who would not sit. I’m an Irish-Catholic. Could you imagine? Three hundred and eleven years ago, I think the King of England would’ve rather seen me hanging from a noose than sitting on the bench. But times have changed. And now people have left (the court) and we’re running for party position. But what’s really at stake is that the decisions made by this court will not only have a large impact on politics, per se, but it’s really dealing with the everyday laws that determine how we live our lives.

NT: Ultimately, one matter to be determined down the road will be legislative redistricting. Philadelphia lost a seat in the last redistricting and the next census is in 2020.

KD: Any decisions or appeals created by the redistricting will be heard directly by the Supreme Court. People want to make it partisan, but (the court is) provided with the constitution, provided with prior case law and they have to listen to the facts. As a justice, you have to take everything on a case-by-case basis, refer to the existing case law, the Constitution, and apply it fairly.

NT: Although you may not be at liberty to discuss specific issues that may appear before the court, how would you characterize your views — conservative-leaning, liberal-leaning or otherwise?

KD: I’m a guy from a working-class background, a blue-collar neighborhood. I put myself through college. I believe that everybody has an opportunity to work hard and acquire the American dream, and the American dream is an individual decision. For me, my philosophy is hard work and good deeds will make you succeed. Yet, there are times a government and a court system need to be a helping hand, not a handout. On a criminal nature, my job is and will be to recognize the good guy who got caught up in a bad way, and to put away the bad guy — and to never apologize for either. We have a right to live in a protected society and if you can’t do that, then I will remove you.

NT: Are there unique tasks facing the new court in light of the recent resignations of two justices under controversial circumstances?

KD: First and foremost, I do and have always believed that the Supreme Court is really a noble institution. It’s gotten negative press lately and I believe it’s (been because of) human frailty. You have good and decent people there. And despite the concerns of some, the rulings and decisions of all those justices were legally sound. Sometimes that gets lost in the mix. .. November 4th is a new day and we will move forward. That will become part of the history of the court. Each day we move forward, it will bring closure. And when people see the court is functioning as the court should, the public impression or tarnished image will be washed away.

NT: What have you learned during your campaign?

KD: What I can tell you is for the first time on this campaign trail, I have seen the families that I’ve touched as a judge. I had two today. I was at a health fair and I had a woman come up to me regarding a case where I helped her stepson 11 years ago. I wish I could bottle that. Because if people saw the goodness of the court and all the good things we can do, they they’ll understand why I’m doing this. Sometimes people think it’s just about power politics and it’s not, not for me. It’s my path to the American Dream. ••