HARRISBURG -- Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin has launched a sharp attack on Judge Jack Panella, her Democratic opponent for a state Supreme Court seat next Tuesday, claiming it was unethical for him to take $1 million in campaign contributions from trial lawyers, whose cases he rules on regularly.
"It's 'pay to play' and it's justice for sale," Judge Melvin told reporters after a meeting yesterday of the Pennsylvania Press Club, where she was guest speaker.
Judge Panella, also a Superior Court judge, has gotten $1 million in contributions from the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, a political action committee funded by state trial lawyers. His previous campaign report to the state listed donations of $350,000 and $150,000, and he is due to get another $500,000 from the group.
Judge Melvin acknowledged that she accepted $100,000 from that group in the last reporting period, with an additional $25,000 listed on the latest report, which was given to the Department of State yesterday. But Judge Melvin maintained that there's a huge difference between the amount she accepted and the amount Judge Panella did.
Because Supreme Court candidates must run statewide for election, "To get the message out, you do need money ... but this is getting out of hand now," she said.
Judge Melvin said the $1 million contribution gives the perception of a payback for years of rulings by Judge Panella in favor of trial lawyers -- something vehemently denied by the Panella camp and the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, an umbrella group for trial lawyers.
"She seems to be saying that they're giving all this money so they can buy Jack Panella, but maybe they're just supporting someone who supports victims," said Panella campaign spokesman Dan Fee. He claimed her complaints are "sour grapes."
Mark Phenicie, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, said he was taken aback by Judge Melvin's comments.
"It's kind of hypocritical if you ask me," he said. "She met with representatives of our PAC (political action committee) in Philadelphia, made a trip to Philadelphia and was more than happy to accept $125,000."
The PAC gave more to Judge Panella because his record demonstrated commitment to victims, Mr. Phenicie said.
Mark Tanner, treasurer of the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, said, "Joan Melvin came to us early on. She said she would be proud to have our support and that it meant a lot to her, so we contributed. It is very disappointing to us that she accepted that contribution and then turned around and criticized us."
He said that lawyers "are in a bit of a unique and difficult position. We appear in front of judges every day, we have a good understanding of what attributes make a good judge, and we have the experience to know both of these candidates first-hand.
"But no matter how well-deserved, a contribution from a lawyer to a judge can look unseemly, so we formed this (political action committee) of litigators. It's hundreds, if not thousands of litigators, so when we make a donation it's large because of the vast number of contributors. We don't think it's right to criticize us for making a choice."
Supporting one candidate more than another, he said, shows the group is not trying to influence future decisions.
"If we wanted to just curry favor with a sitting judge, then we would give to both equally because whoever loses will still be on the Superior Court," Mr. Tanner said. "We're doing what we're doing because we have the courage of our convictions."
Judge Melvin said she favors limits on campaign contributions for judicial candidates, but did not specify what those limits should be. She did say, however, that "$1 million is too much, and I would definitely say $500,000 is too much."
She said the Supreme Court should make rules requiring judges to recuse themselves from cases involving major campaign contributors. "There would be no reason for special interest groups to give such large amounts to judges who can't hear their issues," she said.
Still, Judge Melvin said she has no plans to recuse herself from cases involving the state Senate, even though the Senate Republican whip is her sister, Jane Orie of McCandless.
Judge Melvin insisted she would not be influenced by her sister -- whom she characterized as merely one of 253 lawmakers -- or by support of other legislative leaders.
"I will apply the constitution and the rule of law as I have in the past," she said.
According to campaign finance reports filed yesterday, Judge Panella is way ahead on total funds. As of Oct. 19, he had collected $1.57 million this year and spent $549,000, leaving him more than $1 million to spend before the Nov. 3 election.
Judge Melvin had raised a total of $497,000 and spent $429,000, leaving her with only $68,000, plus debts of more than $11,000.
Some of Judge Panella's other large contributions included $50,000 from the Carpenters Council of Philadelphia; $47,000 from the North Central Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers; $35,000 from the state Corrections Officers Association; $35,000 from AFSCME Council 13; $35,000 from Gov. Ed Rendell; and $25,000 from Democratic candidate for governor Tom Knox.
Judge Melvin got $50,000 from the Virginia-based Mid-Atlantic Laborers Political League; $11,000 from the Associated Building Contractors; $10,000 from the Pennsylvania Future Fund; $10,500 from the Pennsylvania Insurance PAC; and $5,000 each from the Chester County and Bucks County GOP.
Harrisburg Bureau Chief Tom Barnes contributed. Tracie Mauriello can be reached at email@example.com or 717-787-2141.