GOP's Melvin wins chance to face Panella in Supreme Court race

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HARRISBURG -- Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin won a spirited judicial contest yesterday, defeating two other judges to win the Republican nomination for a seat on the state Supreme Court.

Judge Melvin, of Marshall, bested another Superior Court judge from Allegheny County, Cheryl Lynn Allen of Hampton, and a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge, Paul P. Panepinto.

With more than 90 percent of the statewide vote counted, Judge Melvin had well over 50 percent of the vote, putting her well ahead of Judge Allen and Judge Panepinto.

"I feel really good," Judge Melvin said last night. "I've been traveling the state, reaching more than 50 counties, since January. My message on reform and accountability in the courts resonated with voters.''

She said the judicial branch is sometimes called "the stealth branch. I don't think people understand it. They would like more transparency."

Judge Melvin, 53, is a former chief magistrate in Pittsburgh and a former Allegheny County Common Pleas judge. She was seen as the favorite in the race because she had the endorsement of the state Republican Committee, which can be important in a primary. She also had the help of her sister, state Sen. Jane Orie of McCandless, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate.

In the November general election, Judge Melvin will face the Democratic candidate, Superior Court Judge Jack A. Panella of Northampton County, which borders New Jersey.

Judge Panella may benefit from a Democratic advantage in voter registration; there are 1.2 million more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Judge Melvin may have benefitted yesterday from a losing effort in 2006 -- a suit she filed against the state court system, when she tried to reject the 11 percent pay raise that judges were given in 2005.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in 2008 that she couldn't refuse the raise. So, after taxes were taken out of her pay, she gave the remainder of the raise back to the state Treasury. She said she hopes more judges would give back their raises also.

The outcome of the Supreme Court race in November is important for a number of reasons, one of them political. State legislators -- in particular -- will be watching the results closely, because if Judge Melvin wins, Republicans will control the high court 4-3, and if Judge Panella wins, Democrats will have control.

While politics isn't supposed to matter on the court, the important process of redrawing the state House and Senate district lines will be done after the 2010 census.


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


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