The ‘Stop the Steal’ Judge Who Wants a Seat on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court
Patricia McCullough, who is on the ballot on Tuesday, handed Donald Trump a rare legal victory in 2020 and has sided with the GOP on other election cases, only to be repeatedly struck down by the high court she now wants to join.
Alex Burness, | May 11, 2023
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Donald Trump and his allies filed over 60 lawsuits to overturn results in states he lost. Courts rejected all of Trump’s attempts to halt the certification of election results—except for one decision.
Patricia McCullough, a Pennsylvania appeals court judge, issued an order in late November to halt certification of the state’s elections. It was a rare bright spot for Trump’s “Stop the Steal” crusade and its false claims of electoral impropriety, but his victory was short-lived. Within days, Pennsylvania’s supreme court unanimously reversed her ruling and shut down the case by dismissing it with prejudice.
The case, the justices ruled, offered an “extraordinary proposition that the court disenfranchise all 6.9 million Pennsylvanians who voted in the General Election.” The state supreme court has since repeatedly reversed McCullough in other election cases, including overturning a ruling she joined last year against the state’s expanded mail-in voting rules, and rejecting her advice that the state adopt a Republican-drawn redistricting proposal.
McCullough is now running to join the court that so directly questioned her judgment. The death of Democratic Chief Justice Max Baer in October has left a vacancy that voters will fill this year. The winner will join this swing state’s high court and hear cases that touch the 2024 election, just as Trump vies to be on the ballot once more.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s Republican primary, McCullough has enjoyed financial support from “Friends of Doug Mastriano,” a political committee that supports Mastriano, the prominent election denier and Trump ally who unsuccessfully ran for governor last year on an agenda of disrupting state elections.
The primary pits McCullough against Carolyn Carluccio, a local judge endorsed by the state’s Republican Party who has also echoed some false claims of election impropriety. Two Democrats, Deborah Kunselman and Daniel McCaffrey, face off in a primary on the other side of the aisle, with a general election scheduled for November.
Dan Fee, a political consultant who works with liberal judge candidates in Pennsylvania, though he is not affiliated with any in this election, says McCullough siding with Trump didn’t surprise those who’ve followed her rulings over the years.
“Republican judges across the country stood up and said, ‘This isn’t right.’ If you’re the judge who said that this passes the smell test, that raises real questions,” Fee said, calling McCullough a “national outlier of Republicans across the country.”
Judges of all political stripes rejected Trump’s claims in late 2020. The Washington Post tallied at least 38 Republican-appointed judges had ruled against Trump in the five weeks following the 2020 election. That included a Trump nominee in federal court who called a lawsuit to overturn Wisconsin’s results “extraordinary,” and the supreme court in Arizona, which is filled entirely with justices appointed by Republican governors.
“It’s almost hard to overstate how clownish these cases were and how poorly they were litigated,” attorney Sarah Gonski, who argued in favor of the Democratic Party in several Arizona cases in 2020, told Bolts. “The judges that heard our cases in Arizona were routinely Republicans. Every single one of those judges except for [McCullough] said, ‘Get out of my courtroom.’ It was definitely surprising.”
McCullough, in fact, has embraced that distinction. She said in 2021, “I was the only judge in the entire country to enter an order to halt the certification of the 2020 presidential election results.”
She made that comment during her first run for state supreme court, in 2021, just months after trying to block certification. She lost by 19 percentage points to now-Justice Kevin Brobson in the GOP primary. During that campaign, she boasted about her relationship with Trump: “I am the only candidate I know that had a tweet from President Donald Trump, and Donald Trump actually tweeted that I was a brilliant woman of courage,” she told Pittsburgh’s CBS station, in apparent reference to a post by Trump on Nov. 26, 2020. (Trump did score some other small legal victories in late 2020, but other judges did not agree to halt certification.)
Neither McCullough nor her primary opponent, Carluccio, responded to requests for comment on this story.
Carluccio has also signaled comfort with voting restrictions and election conspiracies.
Asked by The Philadelphia Inquirer whether she believes election results in 2020 and 2022 were “free and fair,” she dodged the question. “If even one Pennsylvanian has concerns about our electoral process, we must address them,” she said. “Our government cannot simply dismiss the concerns of a large portion of our electorate.”
The Inquirer’s question came on the heels of Carluccio telling a local GOP audience that she opposed Act 77, the 2019 bipartisan law that expanded mail-in voting in the state; she claimed it had led to “hanky panky,” echoing Trump’s false allegations that mail-in voting has led to voter fraud.
Act 77 was already at the core of the 2020 case in which Trump allies sued to halt certification, as they sought to invalidate the mail-in ballots cast in the state thanks to the expanded statute. In reversing McCullough’s order in favor of the plaintiffs, the state supreme court cited the “complete failure to act with due diligence” since Act 77 had passed a year before. More than a year later, in early 2022, McCullough again sided with Republicans in another case they brought against Act 77, striking down the law as unconstitutional in a 3-2 ruling. The supreme court upheld Act 77 in August.
Other elections on Tuesday feature candidates who have aligned with Trump’s Big Lie. In Kentucky, the Republican secretary of state is running for re-election against an election denier who has the backing of Mike Lindell. In Pennsylvania, VoteBeat and Spotlight PA identified dozens of local candidates who have amplified false claims about the 2020 election in places like Washington County.
The shadow of “Stop the Steal” efforts also loomed large in 2023’s only other supreme court race, in which liberals flipped control of Wisconsin’s high court in April. That election saw more than $31 million spent, a national record for a judicial race. Bloomberg reports that the four Pennsylvania candidates have combined to spend less than $1 million so far, though spending could intensify in the six months before Nov. 7.
Unlike in Wisconsin, the court majority is not in question in Pennsylvania this year.
With one seat on the bench now empty, Democrats hold a 4-2 majority, and November’s victor will fill the seventh seat.
This election could open the door, however, to Republicans regaining court control in Pennsylvania in the future. The terms of three of Pennsylvania’s Democratic supreme court justices end in 2025; if they seek another term, they would face an up-or-down retention election. One Democratic justice, Christine Donahue, is set to hit the mandatory retirement age in 2027, which will prompt a vacancy. Should Republicans win this year, it may help them flip the majority later in the decade.
In the near term, Pennsylvania is likely to remain at the epicenter of election-related litigation, and the state supreme court will continue to be central to resolving that litigation.
“Anyone who remembers 2020 and is thinking ahead to 2024 knows that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is going to play a critical role in how the state runs its elections and how the outcome of the election is managed and dealt with,” Victoria Bassetti, senior advisor at the nonpartisan States United Democracy Center, which works to protect ballot access and beat back voter suppression, told Bolts.
She added, “No one should ever, ever be complacent or overconfident about how courts will rule in these cases, which means that every election and every judge who’s elected to that bench is important.”
Bolts is closely covering the ramifications of Pennsylvania‘s 2023 elections for voting rights and criminal justice.
Explore our coverage of the elections in the run-up to the May 16 primaries.