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Judicial hopefuls treading the line

Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Paul P. Panepinto, who is seeking the GOP nomination for a seat on the state Supreme Court, has gotten some significant support from Texas lawyers.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Paul P. Panepinto, who is seeking the GOP nomination for a seat on the state Supreme Court, has gotten some significant support from Texas lawyers.

A Houston law firm that represented two women in a 2005 case here before Panepinto donated $50,000 to his campaign. Five other Texas lawyers or firms gave another $100,000, meaning that more than half of his campaign bankroll during the first months of the race came from the Lone Star state.

State Superior Court Judge Seamus P. McCaffery, a Democratic high court contender, is getting key labor support. His campaign recently got a giant $50,000 check from John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty's Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers - with a promise of $100,000 more.

Such contributions highlight the frantic race for money in the primary battle for two seats on the state's highest court - and underscore concerns that some donations might also be seen as an effort to curry favor with a judge.

"Inferences of undue influence" could be drawn from these kinds of contributions, said Byron G. Stier, a former Philadelphian who teaches legal ethics at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.

"I don't think it says anything bad about any of the judges. It more raises questions about the system and having judges be a part of the election-campaign process," he said.

Public financing of judicial campaigns would resolve ethical concerns, said Deborah Goldberg, who tracks judicial campaigns for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Having lawyers contribute to judicial candidates, she said, is like having baseball teams contribute to umpires.

"It's not an ideal situation," Goldberg said.

Panepinto and McCaffery said they leave the fund-raising to others in their campaign - and emphasized that no donation would influence a decision.

"I don't care who gives," said Panepinto.

But money has long been part of the route to Pennsylvania's high court - and this year's race for two new justices is expected to break spending records. State Supreme Court races nationally have become increasingly expensive as out-of-state special-interest money floods in from lawyers, unions and business interests.

In Pennsylvania, campaign-finance reports filed earlier this month show that only Panepinto's campaign has drawn out-of-state money - so far.

Four Democrats and three Republicans are vying for their respective party's nominations to run for the two seats. On May 15, each party will nominate two candidates to run in November.

In addition to Panepinto, the other Republican candidates are state Superior Court Judge Maureen Lally-Green of Pittsburgh, and Michael L. Krancer of Montgomery County, former chief judge of the state Environmental Hearing Board.

Other Democrats include Philadelphia Common Pleas President Judge C. Darnell Jones II, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Willis W. Berry Jr. and state Superior Court Judge Debra Todd, from the Pittsburgh area.

The April reports showed a total of nearly $1 million had been raised by all seven candidates, and new campaign-finance reports are due next week. Four candidates' Web sites allow supporters to donate via the Internet.

While Berry has forsaken fund-raising and is running a bare-bones campaign, the other candidates are busy attending fund-raisers, turning to family members for support, hitting up college friends and reaching into their own pockets.

"To be totally honest with you, I hate it with a passion," Jones said of the need to raise funds. His campaign has received a big chunk of money - $69,000 - from the Center City law firm and lawyers managed by his finance committee chairman.

Jones said he is "very, very, very integrity-conscious" and leaves the fund-raising to that committee and his staff. "We have rules and they know that I am to be extremely guarded against this whole process of fund-raising. They don't tell me anything, and I'm glad," said Jones, who said he would offer to step aside from any case in which he found out a lawyer had contributed.

Krancer, a great nephew of financier Walter Annenberg, said he hopes to raise more than $3 million. His first-quarter report shows $125,000 in contributions from family members.

Krancer called fund-raising "the underside-of-the-rock part of the process" and, like other candidates, said he leaves that to others in his campaign.

Panepinto said he just shows up at fund-raising events - but never talks about money.

The judge said he saw nothing inappropriate about the Texas contributions or the $50,000 the Williams Bailey Law Firm - a personal-injury practice based in Houston - gave to his campaign in February.

The firm had helped represent two Utah women who had sued Wyeth after taking the diet drug fen-phen. After the 2005 trial before Panepinto, a Philadelphia jury awarded the women $200 million - a verdict that Panepinto threw out.

"The verdict was too excessive in my view," said the judge, who said he gave a fair shake to both sides in the case.

Panepinto chalked up the Texas contributions as an example of the trend of plaintiff lawyers contributing to judicial campaigns, and said local lawyers also have given to his campaign.

"I don't like the idea of fund-raising. It's an unnecessary burden on the candidate," said Panepinto.

A spokesman for the Williams Bailey firm noted that the Pennsylvania Bar Association had described Panepinto as having "an excellent reputation as a jurist" - and said the firm agreed.

"Having democratically elected judges necessarily entails campaign contributions, and we would never expect that such contributions would affect a judge's decisions," the firm said in a statement.

McCaffery said he needs an infusion of money for TV commercials - especially in western Pennsylvania, where many voters are reluctant to support Philadelphia candidates.

"That's where the money has to go," said McCaffery.

McCaffery said that while lawyers do contribute to his campaign, most of his support comes from labor unions.

"That's been my whole life," said McCaffery, who said that numerous family members belong to unions. He said labor cases generally go before Commonwealth Court, not his court. "If I make it to the Supreme Court, is that something people need to be concerned about?" McCaffery asked - and then answered that his decisions are based on the law.

Just recently, McCaffery said, a lawyer came up to him at a fund-raiser and mentioned that he had just argued a case before him. Believing the comment inappropriate, McCaffery said he "didn't say a word" to the lawyer, but immediately told his campaign staff to refund any donation received from that lawyer.

"I don't need that," he said.

Jones, who is hoping that Gov. Rendell's support will help him emerge as one of two Democratic winners in the primary, said his campaign needs money to break into TV in the final weeks of the race.

"It's extremely critical," he said.

Jones said he figures that his campaign received a significant chunk of money from lawyers at the firm of Klehr, Harrison, Harvey, Branzburg & Ellers L.L.P. because his campaign finance committee is headed by the firm's managing partner, William Harvey.

"I'm sure being in charge of fund-raising, he wants to set an example," said Jones.

Harvey could not be reached for comment. Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said this year's race for the two seats could shatter records.

It may be disturbing and unseemly to watch judicial candidates and their campaigns scurry for money, she said, but "money matters" so it's not their fault.

"It's inevitable," she said. "That's the system."