Although the race for mayor has dominated local politics for the past year, voters will find a different contest at the top of their ballots Tuesday - a battle for control of the state Supreme Court.

Two Democrats and two Republicans are running to fill two empty seats on the court. A sitting justice, Thomas G. Saylor, faces a yes-or-no vote on retention for another 10-year term. Either party could wind up with a majority of the court's seven seats.

Does it matter?

Ask the man who is likely to become the city's top political figure as soon as the votes are counted, Michael Nutter.

"Every serious legal matter ultimately ends up at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court," Nutter said.

"In recent years we've had the school takeover, the Parking Authority, the Convention Center Authority, gaming, campaign finance - all at the Supreme Court."

That's just for starters.

The Supreme Court names one of its justices as a liaison to the Philadelphia court system, and appoints administrative judges to manage Common Pleas Court, consisting of the trial division, Family Court and Orphans Court.

Also, Nutter points out, there are court-related issues of critical importance to the city, including the decades-long effort to secure new headquarters for Family Court, and improved coordination between the Police Department and the Probation Department, to deal more effectively with repeat offenders.

The two Democratic candidates for the Supreme Court seats are now Superior Court judges - Seamus McCaffery, 57, an Irish-born former Philadelphia cop who went to law school and got himself elected to Philadelphia Municipal Court, and Debra Todd, 50, who did legal work for U.S. Steel and ran a private practice in Pittsburgh before winning her appellate-court seat in 1999.

The two Republican contenders are Maureen Lally-Green, 58, another Superior Court judge from the Pittsburgh area, initially appointed in 1998 by then-Gov. Tom Ridge and elected statewide the following year, and Michael L. Krancer, 49, chief judge and chairman of the state's Environmental Hearing Board, which handles appeals of actions by the Department of Environmental Protection, among other matters.

Their campaigns have generally been low-key affairs, the candidates appearing before small, polite audiences throughout the state, talking more about their personal and professional backgrounds than about issues facing the court system.

A coalition of citizen groups asked all the candidates to respond to a 15-point "reform platform" developed by a Duquesne University law professor, Bruce Ledewitz.

Among other items, Ledewitz proposed a ban on private discussions between justices and government officials, criticizing Chief Justice Ralph Cappy for his private talks with legislative leaders about a pay raise for judges.

Ledewitz also suggested more public access to documents dealing with court administration, public meetings when the court considers rule changes and a more-transparent process to the court's appointments to various boards, like those that handle disciplinary matters involving judges and lawyers.

Saylor, Todd and Krancer all submitted detailed responses, posted on the Internet site of Democracy Rising, one of the participating citizen groups, at www. democracyrisingpa.com.

Lally-Green declined to comment on many of the questions, citing judicial canons of ethics that forbid "the making of pledges or promises of conduct in office." And McCaffery politely declined to answer any of the questions, saying that he didn't want to express opinions on matters that could come before him in court.

The Pennsylvania Bar Association conducted formal evaluations of all four Supreme Court candidates and delivered two levels of recommendations.

Both women - Todd and Lally-Green - were rated "highly recommended" by the bar. By its definition, the rating signified that the candidates possess "the highest combination of legal ability, experience, integrity and temperament, and would be capable of outstanding performance as a judge or justice. . . ."

Both men - Krancer and McCaffrey - were rated "recommended," a lower rating. The bar's definition said it signified that "based on legal ability, experience, integrity and temperament, the candidate would be able to perform satisfactorily as a judge or justice. . . ."

Saylor was recommended for retention.

More-complete descriptions of the candidates and their ratings are accessible at www.pavotesmart.com. *