HARRISBURG -- With the state Supreme Court election less than a week away, rancor is rising rapidly between Democrat Jack Panella and Republican Joan Orie Melvin, with his camp accusing her of making false charges in a television ad that he "turned his back on children" in Luzerne County.
Mr. Panella, a Superior Court judge, chaired the state Judicial Conduct Board in 2006, the same year the panel received a complaint about two Luzerne County judges accused of sending hundreds of young people to juvenile detention facilities in which the jurists had a financial interest, or didn't give the juvenile defendants adequate opportunity to get a lawyer.
The state Republican Party ad claims the Judicial Conduct Board didn't act on the anonymous complaint about the two judges.
Five former members of the conduct board yesterday called the accusation "patently false" and asked Judge Orie Melvin to stop using the ad.
Judge Orie Melvin, who also sits on the Superior Court, brought up the issue at a press club luncheon here Monday.
The GOP ad says, "Judge Panella turned his back on these children when he and the Judicial Conduct Board received a complaint about the judges."
On the state Republican Party Web site, Chairman Rob Gleason said the "failure" of Judge Panella and other board members "to take appropriate action on the 2006 complaint ... resulted in the destruction of hundreds of children's lives."
But five former conduct board members wrote a letter saying the charge is untrue. They are Charlene McAbee of Pittsburgh; James Weaver of State College; G. Craig Lord of Philadelphia; Carolyn Rudnitsky of Selinsgrove; and Charles Clement Jr. of New Cumberland. The Judicial Conduct Board investigates allegations of ethical misconduct against Pennsylvania judges.
The ex-board members said the TV ad implies "that we somehow looked away from evidence that children were being mistreated." That notion "is offensive to us as individuals and as people sworn to uphold the law. Nothing could be further from the truth."
In their statement, the ex-board members said they had gotten "an anonymous complaint that juveniles were being improperly sent to one facility.''
The ex-board members said the federal prosecutor in the Luzerne County case agreed that the Conduct Board "not only did the right thing" by telling federal authorities about the anonymous complaint, "but they did so expeditiously."
In 2006, authorities began investigating the judges: former Luzerne County Common Pleas judges Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, who now await trial on the charges.
As for whether the anti-Panella ads will stop, Orie Melvin campaign aide Todd Nyquist said, "It's not her who is running attack ads about Panella. They're paid for by the state Republican Party. Judge Orie Melvin has run a positive campaign and will do so from here on out."
As for televised political "attack ads,'' Mr. Nyquist said, "The attack ads I've seen are ones paid for by the friends of Judge Panella and they are baseless, false and inaccurate."
The nasty dispute over campaign ads follows criticism that Judge Orie Melvin made over Judge Panella's fundraising. She claimed the fact that he's gotten $1 million from trial lawyers gives at least the perception of a "pay-to-play'' situation where "justice is for sale.''
Republican Chairman Gleason said that Judge Panella's "scandalous, negative'' TV ads were "bought and paid for by $1,000,000 in trial attorney money."
Panella supporters retorted that Judge Orie Melvin herself has gotten $125,000 from the trial lawyers group.
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254