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Supreme Court election crucial to redistricting, leaders say

Lt. Gov. Joe Scarnati's letter to fellow Republicans on behalf of state Supreme Court candidate Joan Orie Melvin was unusually blunt.

Pa. Supreme Court candidates Jack Panella (front) and Joan Orie Melvin (center) during a debate last week at Temple.
Pa. Supreme Court candidates Jack Panella (front) and Joan Orie Melvin (center) during a debate last week at Temple.Read more

Lt. Gov. Joe Scarnati's letter to fellow Republicans on behalf of state Supreme Court candidate Joan Orie Melvin was unusually blunt.

"Control of the Supreme Court is on the ballot this year," he wrote March 3, "and you know the courts play a key role in finalizing redistricting maps that will set the political landscape for the next decade."

Except for the mild heat generated by a recent round of TV ads, the Supreme Court battle next Tuesday between Orie Melvin, a Republican, and Democrat Jack Panella has received little public notice. Turnout for the election may be the lowest in Pennsylvania in years.

But state Democratic leaders are just as frank as top Republicans in saying that to them, the court fight is all-important. It could influence the once-a-decade remapping of congressional and legislative districts after the 2010 U.S. Census.

The issue has become a focus in the battle between Orie Melvin, 53, of Wexford, near Pittsburgh, and Panella, 54, of Palmer Township, near Easton - a race that has also dealt with campaign money and judicial philosophy.

Under the state constitution, each party gets two seats at the negotiating table when district boundaries are redrawn to reflect population shifts since 2000. The court likely will be called upon to appoint an arbiter to break the tie, and that's where the election comes in.

Both parties are keenly aware that the six justices who will still be on the court next year are split 3-3 in terms of party affiliation. (The seventh justice, Jane Cutler Greenspan, was appointed to fill the seat of the late chief justice, Ralph Cappy, on condition that she not run for a full 10-year term.)

In practical partisan terms, the winner of Tuesday's election will determine the court's majority. And at redistricting time, the majority gets to pick the arbiter.

"The last time, it was the Republicans who controlled the state Supreme Court," said Abe Amoros, spokesman for the Democratic State Committee. "This year, we are looking at a 4-3 majority when Jack Panella wins, which will give us some hope at redistricting."

No one in politics is saying directly that Orie Melvin or Panella would be anything less than fair and impartial. And the candidates say, emphatically, that they won't let partisanship influence them.

Yet Orie Melvin and Panella - now colleagues on the state Superior Court, one level below the Supreme Court - are accusing each other's campaign of turning the remapping into an issue.

"It's Jack Panella who puts redistricting out front in a partisan manner . . . and he continues to do so," Orie Melvin said.

In an interview, she said Panella brought up redistricting at a Democratic State Committee meeting last winter when he was seeking party endorsement.

She said: "I am not a Republican judge; I am a judge of all the people. I have always followed the constitution - and will do so in redistricting."

Panella, in an interview, said he worries that if Orie Melvin wins, the GOP majority on the court will give an unfair edge to Republicans in the remapping process.

"That gives me a lot of concern," he said. "I believe we have to keep politics out of the Supreme Court."

Because they controlled the last redistricting process a decade ago - when they had a majority on the court - Republicans were able to move district lines in ways that benefited their candidates and hurt some Democrats.

In the state's southeastern corner, many suburban Democrats were moved into Philadelphia-based districts. This made life easier for Republicans in the suburbs, but did not affect city races that favored Democrats anyway.

Partly because of redistricting, Republicans were able to reverse the 11-10 majority that Democrats had previously held in U.S. House seats in Pennsylvania. By 2003, Republicans held 12 seats; Democrats, seven.

Redistricting is a major issue in the court race "because gerrymandering robs our citizens of the right to vote," Panella said. "Your vote is meaningless if the district has been arranged so a political party has no chance of winning."

Michael Barley, spokesman for the Republican State Committee, said that besides redistricting, the parties have another reason for working hard to win the Supreme Court election. The result could help the winning party gain momentum for next year's gubernatorial and congressional races.

With millions of dollars being poured into the court race, each candidate has accused the other of being held captive by special interests.

Orie Melvin faults Panella for the hundreds of thousands of dollars his campaign has received from Philadelphia trial lawyers and labor unions, even though her campaign has received lesser funding from the same sources.

Panella, in turn, has blasted Orie Melvin for what he calls her overreliance on financial help from the state Senate Republican leadership. He said the senators - one of whom is Orie Melvin's sister - are playing the redistricting game. Jane Orie (R., Allegheny) is the Senate majority whip.

In interviews on Monday, both candidates were asked how their rival's judicial philosophy differed from their own.

Orie Melvin said that Panella's much-larger supply of campaign funds from plaintiff lawyers evidenced that group's belief that he is more friendly to its interests.

Panella said Orie Melvin had a record of turning away plaintiffs seeking to sue for wrongs committed by corporations and insurers.

Both candidates were rated "highly recommended" by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which routinely evaluates the qualifications of judicial candidates.

The group called Orie Melvin "genial and fair-minded" and said "she has demonstrated sound judicial temperament." It credited Panella with "sound judicial temperament and exceptional administrative ability," while possessing "a rare combination of intellect, energy and skills."

Voters will also elect judges to the middle-rung appellate courts - four to Superior Court, two to Commonwealth Court.

The Republicans on the Superior Court ballot are Judy Olson, a Common Pleas Court judge in Allegheny County; Sallie Mundy, a medical-malpractice lawyer from Tioga County; Temp Smith, an appellate lawyer from Pittsburgh; and Paula Ott, a Chester County Common Pleas Court judge.

The Democrats seeking Superior Court seats are Robert J. Colville, a Common Pleas Court judge in Allegheny County; Kevin Francis McCarthy, a prosecutor in Allegheny County; and Anne E. Lazarus and Teresa Sarmina, both judges on Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

Running under the Libertarian Party label is Marakay J. Rogers of York, who previously ran for governor as a Green Party candidate.

In Commonwealth Court races, the Republican nominees are Patricia A. McCullough, a former Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judge, and Kevin Brobson, an appellate lawyer in Harrisburg.

The Democrats are Barbara Behrend Ernsberger, a trial lawyer from Pittsburgh, and Linda S. Judson, also a Pittsburgh lawyer.

Joan Orie Melvin

Age: 53

Education: B.A., economics, Notre Dame University, 1978; J.D., Duquesne University School of Law, 1981.

Experience: Judge of Pennsylvania Superior Court, 1998-present; judge of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, 1991-1998; magistrate for Pittsburgh Municipal Courts, 1985-1991; lawyer in private practice, 1981-1985.

Family: Orie Melvin and her husband, Greg, have six children. They live in the Pittsburgh suburb of Wexford.


Jack Panella

Age: 54

Education: B.A., accounting, St. John's University, 1977; J.D., Columbus School of Law at Catholic University of America, 1980.

Experience: Judge, Pennsylvania Superior Court, 2004-present; judge of Northampton County Common Pleas Court, 1991-2004; private lawyer, assistant county solicitor, and solicitor of Northampton County, 1982-1991; judicial law clerk, 1980-1982.

Family: Panella and his wife, Jeannie, have three children. They live in Palmer Township, near Easton.