Orie Melvin bucks odds to win Pa. Supreme Court seat

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HARRISBURG -- Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin, an Allegheny County Republican, overcame large deficits in campaign cash and voter registration yesterday to win a pivotal seat on the state Supreme Court.

Judge Orie Melvin, who lives in Marshall and is the sister of state Senate Republican Whip Jane Orie, defeated Democratic challenger Jack Panella of Northampton County, who also is a judge on the Superior Court. With nearly 97 percent of the vote counted, she had 53 percent to Judge Panella's 47 percent.

Her victory means Republicans will have a 4-3 advantage on the high court starting in January, a factor that could come into play during the redrawing of state House and Senate district lines after the census in 2010.

Judge Panella called her to concede shortly after 11 p.m.

Judge Orie Melvin said one reason for her victory was that she traveled to all 67 counties, starting in January, and talked to people about the judiciary, which she called "the stealth branch of government."

She said the judicial branch "is the least understood branch of government. We get to see legislators on TV as they debate different things, and we see the governor when he signs or vetoes a bill. Most people don't understand the courts, but with a stroke of a pen a judge can undo something the Legislature has done. There is a bit of a mystery to judicial branch."

By going around the state and meeting people, "I delivered my message of reform, transparency and accountability" for the judicial branch, she said in a phone interview last night. "That resonated with voters."

The Supreme Court contest contrasted a modestly funded Republican woman from Western Pennsylvania vs. a heavily funded Democratic man from Eastern Pennsylvania.

Judge Panella, in fact, set a fund-raising record for a Supreme Court race, collecting $2.35 million as of last week, according to the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

Besides a lot of money, the race also featured harsh political ads by both sides. Judge Panella got $1 million from the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, which is a political action committee for Philadelphia trial lawyers. Judge Orie Melvin claimed such a large donation made it look like "justice for sale" and "pay to play" was going on, charges the Democrat's supporters strongly denied.

Judge Orie Melvin also received $125,000 from the trial lawyers' group, part of the $734,000 she had received as of the last report Oct. 19, according to the Modern Courts group.

The state Republican Committee ran TV ads alleging that Judge Panella had "turned his back on children" in Luzerne County, where two ex-judges are accused of sending hundreds of young people to detention facilities in which the jurists had a financial interest.

Judge Panella was on the state's Judicial Conduct Board in 2006, when the board got an anonymous tip about the alleged misconduct. Panella supporters said the board did the proper thing by telling federal authorities about the unsigned complaint about the two judges.

Panella supporters also ran tough TV ads about Judge Orie Melvin, claiming she had sided too often with insurance companies and would "take away women's right to choose" on health care. Other critics were concerned about her refusal to recuse herself from cases involving the state Senate, where her sister is the third-ranking Republican.

As far as negative ads, Judge Orie Melvin said, "People could see through that. I'm very proud and happy that it obviously didn't have a negative impact on my race."

Judge Orie Melvin ran once before, in 2003, for the high court but lost.

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


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