Three Republicans in fight for state Supreme Court nod

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HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania Republicans view party primary battles the same way Steelers fans view the Baltimore Ravens -- they don't like them.

So it's unusual that there's a three-way Republican contest for a state Supreme Court nomination in the May 19 primary.

Two Superior Court judges from the Pittsburgh area, Joan Orie Melvin and Cheryl Lynn Allen, are going up against a Common Pleas judge from Philadelphia, Paul P. Panepinto.

Judge Melvin received the endorsement of the state Republican Committee in February, which should help turn out her vote on primary day.

"I think she has to be considered the favorite because of her organizational strength,'' said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist in Harrisburg.

But he also noted that Judge Allen won election to Superior Court two years ago without state committee backing. Judge Panepinto could have a geographical edge because there are many Republican voters in Philly and its four large suburban counties.

"People in Philadelphia will vote for their own, just as people in Allegheny County will vote for their own," said Philadelphia political analyst Larry Ceisler, who grew up in Washington County.

He added that since the Supreme Court is a low-profile race, the most that many voters will know about judicial candidates is their gender and community.

Franklin & Marshall College pollster G. Terry Madonna said geography could play a larger role than usual in a race like this, which hasn't gotten much publicity.

"Some voters will be reluctant to vote for a judge from Philadelphia,'' Mr. Madonna said. "But you have two candidates from southwest Pennsylvania, which could split the vote.''

He said there's "a lot of chance" in this election, and quipped, "This race couldn't have been designed by a casino owner any better than it is."

Democrats, who are more prone to primaries than the GOP, are also doing something unusual on May 19 -- they don't have a Supreme Court contest. The only Democratic candidate for the high court is Jack A. Panella, a Superior Court judge from Easton, Northampton County. He'll be on the ballot in November.

Judge Panella, 54, was Northampton County solicitor before becoming a Common Pleas judge in 1991. He joined the Superior Court bench in January 2004.

He is also chairman of the state's Judicial Conduct Board, the investigatory/prosecutorial arm of the judicial discipline system.

There currently are 1.2 million more Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania.

"With that advantage, and with Judge Panella being a moderate Democrat, he will be formidable in the fall," said Mr. Gerow.

Judge Melvin, 53, of Marshall, was named a Pittsburgh city magistrate in 1985 and chief magistrate in 1987. While serving in the city court system, she created the state's first Domestic Violence Court.

She became an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge in 1990 and was elected to the Superior Court in 1997 and re-elected in 2007. She is the sister of state Senate GOP Whip Jane Orie.

Judge Melvin sued the state court system in 2006 in an effort to reject her 11 percent raise, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that she couldn't refuse the raise. Now, after taxes are taken out of her pay, she gives the remainder of the raise back to the Treasury. The raise increased Superior Court judges' pay from $145,658 to $162,100.

"I would hope to serve as a role model for judges in general, in voluntarily paying back the raise," she said.

As for Judge Melvin being the party-endorsed candidate, Mr. Madonna said, "That recommendation should matter, but we'll see."

Judge Allen, 61, of Hampton, became a Common Pleas judge in Allegheny County in 1990 and was elected to Superior Court in 1997. Her first job was as an elementary school teacher for the Pittsburgh public schools. She later was an associate professor at Point Park University from 2001-06. For much of the 1980s, she was counsel for the Wilkinsburg chapter of the NAACP.

Judge Allen said she thinks Republican voters are looking "for a judge who has common sense and integrity, a judge who is known for being tough but fair." She insists that she is that kind of judge.

She switched from the Democratic party several years ago, telling a recent conference of political conservatives that the "secularism" she sees in the Democratic party caused her to change parties.

"We are a nation under God, and they want to create a nation without God," she said. She's confident she can win without the state committee's endorsement, "without the support of the old guard of her party." She defeated two party-endorsed candidates to win the Superior Court seat.

Judge Panepinto, 59, isn't well-known in Western Pennsylvania. He was a lawyer from 1977-90, when he was appointed to the Common Pleas bench. He was elected to a full term in 1991 and re-elected in 2001.

He has worked in the Family Division of the court, where he worked to lessen student truancy and to require more divorced fathers to pay child support they owed. He also set up a program called Networking for Jobs, which matched companies with fathers who owed support and teenagers who needed jobs. He now is assigned to the court's Civil Division.

In 2003, Gov. Ed Rendell named him to a four-year stint on the Court of Judicial Discipline, which has jurisdiction over the conduct of all Pennsylvania judges. He said it's not important that he didn't get the state committee endorsement.

"I am in it to win," he said.

All four candidates have been rated as "highly recommended" by the state Bar Association.

The candidates' Web sites have additional information: www.judgecherylallen.org; www.judgepanepinto.com; www.judgeoriemelvin.com; and www.votejackpanella.com.


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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