Just how good are Pennsylvania judges? The best money can buy, apparently.

The race for a seat on the state Supreme Court this year was likely be the most expensive judicial race in the nation, according to the nonprofit group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

The group found that at least $4.5 million had been spent on the campaigns of Democrat Jack Panella and winning Republican candidate Joan Orie Melvin.

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said the massive spending underscores the need to replace the election of appellate court judges with a merit-selection process.

"These candidates have to raise enormous amounts of money, and it comes from groups that are often in state court - lawyers, businesses, unions and political committees, and also the state political parties," Marks said.

The actual spending on the Supreme Court race, Marks said, is likely much higher than the $4.5 million that can be readily identified, since reporting rules don't require each party to disclose which candidates it spent millions to help.

Marks said polls consistently show that voters who see heavy spending on judicial races "wonder whether justice is for sale."

"If you think of yourself in court, you don't want to be sitting there wondering whether your opponent, or your opponent's attorney, made a large contribution to the judge," Marks said.

He said a national survey found that Pennsylvania's 2007 Supreme Court race the nation's most expensive. Data for the current year isn't complete, she said, but Pennsylvania consistently ranks at the top of spending on judicial races.

Marks said both candidates spoke of the influence of money in judicial elections during the campaign. She's hopeful that legislation now before state lawmakers could lead to the appointment of appellate court judges.

"It's tough to change the state constitution," Marks said, "but I think there's more political will now and the governor has said this will be a priority of his."

A telephone call and an e-mail from the Daily News to the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, formerly the Trial Lawyers Association, weren't returned. The group has opposed the merit-selection legislation, arguing that elections give the public a voice and bring more diversity to the bench.