HARRISBURG - The influence of Pennsylvania's political parties will be put to the test in tomorrow's primary, as nominations for state appellate courts are decided.
Ten candidates spurned by the Democratic and Republican state committees have refused to bow to their will, and are waging often vigorous campaigns against seven party-endorsed candidates for the Supreme Court and Superior Court.
Fund-raising by Supreme Court candidates alone surpassed $2 million by the end of April, and is on a trajectory to set a record.
Even Gov. Rendell is bucking the Democratic Party by promoting an unendorsed candidate for Supreme Court.
"This is America," state GOP Chairman Robert Gleason said. "Anybody can run that wants to run."
Tomorrow marks the first judicial election since former Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro became the first state judge to be ousted in a normally routine retention vote. Citizen activists turned his November 2005 retention bid into a referendum on the unpopular state government pay raises that the legislature approved - and repealed - that year.
It is also the first judicial election since the court's September ruling that retroactively restored the pay raises for 1,000 judges across the state, including the justices themselves, while upholding the repeal of the raises in the other two branches.
Competition is especially stiff for the two Supreme Court vacancies, which represent the biggest electoral opportunity for aspiring justices in 12 years.
The Democratic committee endorsed two Superior Court judges - Seamus McCaffery of Philadelphia and Debra Todd of Butler County - for the nominations. The GOP endorsed Superior Court Judge Maureen Lally-Green of Butler County and Mike Krancer of Bryn Mawr, the former chairman and chief judge of the state Environmental Hearing Board.
But a pair of Philadelphia Common Pleas judges - Democrat C. Darnell Jones and Republican Paul Panepinto - hope the "highly recommended" ratings they received from a bar panel will help sway the vote in their favor. Among the endorsed candidates, Todd and Lally-Green earned the top rating, but McCaffery and Krancer received second-tier "recommended" ratings.
If voters "look at the candidates' qualifications, I believe I'm No. 1 or at least No. 2" among the Republicans, Panepinto said.
Rendell urged the Democratic committee in February to forgo any endorsements this year, in the hope that voters would follow the bar panel recommendations and nominate Jones and Todd. He argued that Jones, who is black, would lend racial balance to the ticket, just as Todd would provide gender balance, but the committee ignored his advice.
The governor has campaigned around the state with Jones. He also appears in a TV commercial that Jones' campaign is airing heavily in the Pittsburgh area.
Jones received another boost last month when the state's two largest newspapers - The Inquirer and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - endorsed him over McCaffery, while otherwise concurring with the party endorsements.
"For me, it's all about who is the most qualified person," said Jones, who is Philadelphia's president judge.
McCaffery said the endorsement was an important affirmation of a candidate's party loyalty but no guarantee of victory.
A high turnout in Philadelphia could help Jones, McCaffery, or the other Democrat in the race, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Willis Berry, who received a "not recommended" rating from the bar panel and has made only a minimal campaign effort.
Ten candidates are vying for nominations for two openings on the Superior Court.
The Republican-endorsed candidates are Dauphin County Judge Bruce Bratton and Westmoreland County lawyer Jacqueline Shogan. They are opposed by Allegheny County Judge Cheryl Allen, who is the only one of the three who received a "highly recommended" rating from the bar panel; Bratton and Shogan received "recommended" ratings.
The Democratic committee endorsed only one candidate for Superior Court: Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge John Younge.