WAY BELOW the noise of the national health-care debate and the state budget debacle is a whisper of a race for state Supreme Court with possible loud and long-term impact.

Yes, dear readers, you get to vote Nov. 3 for either Democrat Jack Panella, of Easton, or Republican Joan Orie Melvin, of Pittsburgh -yeah, I know, who? - and the winner determines the political balance of the state's highest court.

That could be crucial to redrawing lines for legislative districts after the 2010 census, a process that's the very spine of politics, one whose outcome the court can determine playing, if you will, state chiropractor.

I should mention that Pennsylvania has been ranked second-worst gerrymandered state in America, behind Georgia.

Assuming you know nothing about these candidates, they debate Thursday at noon at Temple's Beasley School of Law, on Broad Street. Might be nice to see what they look like.

Panella and Melvin currently serve on state Superior Court (I know, the what?) Both have histories of public service. Both are "highly recommended" by the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

Panella went to St. John's University, then Catholic University's law school. He's married with three children. Melvin went to Notre Dame and Duquesne Law. She's married with six children. Her sister is state Sen. Jane Orie, the Republican Senate Whip.

Democrat Panella has lots more money. State campaign finance records show him with $900,000 compared to Melvin's $190,000.

Panella's biggest donors are trial lawyers and unions. His biggest single donor is something called Committee for a Better Tomorrow (with a name like that it has to be good). It gave him $500,000.

"We're a bipartisan group of civil litigators," says committee treasurer Mark Tanner, a trial lawyer with the Philly firm Feldman, Shepard.

The same committee gave Melvin $100,000 - her largest donation.

Tanner concedes: "If you're a lawyer and write a check to a judge it looks bad." He says that the committee provides "at least some level of anonymity as opposed to a lawyer slapping a judge on the back and handing him [or her] a check."


The committee got $60,000 from LAWPAC, the state trial bar's political action committee.

Panella got $100,000 from Philly's (and John Dougherty's) IBEW Local 98. Melvin got $25,000 from state Senate GOP Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi.

So if you're thinking, gee, these two must be tools of the trial bar, unions and pols, you can be forgiven. But that's who's most interested in who sits on our courts. And that's one of the arguments against electing statewide judges; it makes that equal-justice-for-all thing seem a little suspect.

Still, these candidates aren't without substance, achievement and other backing. Melvin established the state's first Domestic Violence Court while Chief Magistrate of Pittsburgh's Municipal Courts. Panella wrote the state courts' bench book on crimes of sexual violence.

He's endorsed by NOW and the AFL-CIO; she's endorsed by the NRA and the Pro-Life Federation.

Politically, the race could be a wash. A western woman in a statewide judicial election usually wins. Melvin in 2003 lost to Supreme Court Justice Max Baer (no relation, though whenever I see him I call him Uncle Max - I don't think he likes it), but Max is also from the west. Western voters traditionally turn out in proportionally higher numbers than easterners and are known as regional loyalists.

And Melvin made statewide news in 2006 when she sued the state in an effort to refuse the 2005 pay raise that the Legislature passed then repealed but that judges kept. She lost, appealed to Supreme Court and lost there, too.

Was her suit a cheap, pandering ploy or honest anger from a reformer? Neither her campaign nor Republican State Committee returned my calls. Possibly they don't know she's running.

Panella's edge, in addition to all that lawyer money, is that Democrats have 1.2 million more registered voters than Republicans thanks to party drives for last year's presidential election. That could balance or cancel the western advantage - if, that is, anyone notices that there's an election. *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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