2009-10-08 / Local & State

High Court Candidates Have Contrasting Styles


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Two Superior Court judges with contrasting styles are vying for an open seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in an election contest that could determine the partisan lineup on the state’s highest court for the next five years.

Jack Panella, who in a recent speech recalled his freewheeling days as a lawyer representing such celebrities as former world heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes, comes across as friendly and eager to please.

Joan Orie Melvin is more businesslike and has a combative streak. She achieved notoriety by refusing to accept the judicial pay raise that emerged from the 2005 legislative pay-raise mess and continues to return to the state treasury the after-tax portion of all salary increases granted since then.

Panella, a Northampton County Democrat, and Melvin, an Allegheny County Republican, are similar in other ways. They are both in their 50s. Both labored as county judges for years before being elevated to the Superior Court. And each of them won the top “highly recommended’’ rating from the state bar review panel.

The Supreme Court contest is the main attraction in the Nov. 3 statewide election that also will decide races for four open seats on the Superior Court and two on the Commonwealth Court.

In all, 15 judges and lawyers are running for the appellate bench. All were born between 1950 and 1970. Ten of the candidates are women, and eight of them work in Pittsburgh.

The annual salary for Supreme Court justices is currently $186,450, and judges on the Superior and Commonwealth courts are paid $175,923. The presiding judges are paid slightly more.

A Melvin victory in the Supreme Court race would restore the one-seat majority the GOP lost in 2007, while a Panella win could sustain the Democrats’ 4-3 edge for five years. No other changes in the court’s makeup are anticipated before 2014, when Chief Justice Ronald Castille will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70.

How much that matters is an open question.

Some observers consider the court’s political balance a potentially crucial factor in the decennial redrawing of legislative districts– like the one that will follow the 2010 census. But lawyers in both parties familiar with the process noted that the justices have not overturned any of the legislative redistricting plans crafted by bipartisan panels under a constitutional amendment approved in 1968.

The partisan lineup is “less significant than both parties are making it appear,’’ said Gregory Harvey, a Philadelphia lawyer who often represents Democrats in court cases involving election law.

“It’s overstated,’’ agreed Stephen C. MacNett, the state Senate GOP’s top lawyer. “You’ve had four plans written and four plans upheld.’’

Panella has the edge in fundraising. His campaign took in nearly $1.2 million through mid-September, with more than half coming from political committees representing Philadelphia trial lawyers and organized labor. He was unopposed for the Democratic nomination in the May primary.

Melvin had raised only $418,000, including $100,000 from the Philadelphia trial lawyers, and spent much of that in a three-way primary fight.

Asked to describe their judicial philosophies, Panella said he strives to ensure that the interest of every litigant is fairly considered before a decision is rendered, while Melvin said she believes the appellate courts’ job is to interpret existing law and not to create new law.

Panella asserted that Melvin has said on the campaign trial she has sought to limit litigation involving businesses and that she has applied an “overly stringent standard of review and utilized her discretion to bar certain litigants from the court system.’’ He declined to be more specific.

“I have never said that,’’ Melvin responded.

“I go where the law leads me,’’ and that review allows some cases to go forward and stops others, she said. “I will say this – that my philosophy of not being an activist and not being resultsoriented is the way judges should be.’’

The vacant seat Panella and Melvin hope to fill is currently held by Justice Jane Cutler Greenspan, a Democrat appointed to complete the term of the late Chief Justice Ralph Cappy after he retired in early 2008. Greenspan agreed as a condition of her appointment not to seek a full 10-year term.

This is Melvin’s second bid for the Supreme Court. In 2003, she narrowly lost to Democrat Max Baer.

Democrats running for Superior Court are Philadelphia County Common Pleas judges Anne Lazarus and Teresa Sarmina, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Robert Colville and Allegheny County prosecutor Kevin McCarthy. The GOP slate comprises Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Judy Olson, Chester County Common Pleas Judge Paula Ott, Tioga County lawyer Sallie Mundy and Pittsburgh lawyer Temp Smith. York lawyer Marakay Rogers is the candidate of the Libertarian Party.

The Commonwealth Court candidates are Democrats Barbara Behrend Ernsberger and Linda Judson, both Pittsburgh lawyers, and Republicans Kevin Brobson, a Harrisburg lawyer and Patricia McCullough, a Pittsburgh lawyer.

Only two candidates – Ernsberger and Rogers – received “not recommended’’ ratings from the bar panel. The other 13 were rated either “recommended’’ or “highly recommended.’’

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