State judicial candidates on ballot in Tuesday primary
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HARRISBURG -- The old restrictions have been relaxed. A 2002 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court means that Pennsylvania judicial candidates can discuss issues -- even issues that might come before them in court.
That's why one candidate in Tuesday's otherwise sleepy primary contest for two powerful appellate judgeships is able to tout his stance on abortion.
Both parties are choosing nominees for two statewide judicial vacancies, one each on the Superior and Commonwealth courts.
On his campaign website, Paul Panepinto, now a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge, proclaims in bold letters that he is Roman Catholic and "pro-life."
Mr. Panepinto, a Republican who has twice run unsuccessfully for state Supreme Court, is seeking a seat on the Commonwealth Court.
In a coincidental twist, the primary comes a week after the state House approved abortion-clinic regulations which, if enacted, could face a legal challenge.
Mr. Panepinto, a 20-year veteran of the bench, did not return a phone call seeking comment about his website statement. Replying by email to questions, the judge wrote that he adhered to "the letter of the law" in every case.
"At no time did I become influenced by popular opinion or outside pressure. This has been demonstrated throughout my career."
Lynn Marks, executive director of the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said Mr. Panepinto's website underscores the tension between the need for judicial impartiality and a candidate's First Amendment rights. Those rights were upheld -- and the limits on judicial candidates' comments relaxed -- when the Supreme Court threw out Minnesota's similar limits in 2002.
Mr. Panepinto's online statement "does not cross the line of what a candidate can and can't do," said Ms. Marks, "but it does send a message."
The other Republican in that race is New Hope labor-relations lawyer Anne Covey, who has the state party's backing. Ms. Covey received the endorsement of LifePac, a pro-life political action fund, but neither she nor the Democrats running for Commonwealth Court offer their abortion views on their websites.
The Superior Court hears appeals in criminal cases and most civil cases from the common pleas courts, as well as appeals from those courts on matters involving children and families. Commonwealth Court handles lawsuits brought by and against the state, as well as appeals of decisions by state regulatory agencies and by lower courts in cases involving state and local government.
Judges on both benches earn $179,000 a year.
Doylestown lawyer Kathryn Boockvar is the party-endorsed candidate for the Democratic nomination for Commonwealth Court. Campaign finance reports filed with the state indicate she has $23,000 in her campaign coffers, nearly half contributed by unions.
Her opponent, Barbara Behrend Ernsberger, a Pittsburgh lawyer, had just $1,300 on hand. Much of her support, too, came from unions.
On the Republican side, Ms. Covey, of New Hope, reported just $5,000, while Mr. Panepinto had $24,000 on hand, much of it donated by lawyers.
In the Superior Court race, Republican Vic Stabile, a Harrisburg lawyer and the GOP-endorsed candidate, reported $49,000. Among his contributors was charter school operator Vahan Gureghian, in recent years one of the state's largest donors to Republican races. Mr. Gureghian gave Mr. Stabile's campaign $5,000.
Mr. Stabile faces Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Paula Patrick in the primary. She reported just $177 in her campaign account.
In the Democratic primary, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David N. Wecht, son of forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, has the state party's endorsement and is running unopposed. Mr. Wecht, who was endorsed by the state party, has $12,000 on hand.
The state bar association's evaluation panel, consisting of 12 lawyers and six non-lawyers, gave Mr. Panepinto and Mr. Wecht its best grade -- "highly recommended." Ms. Covey, Ms. Boockvar, Judge Patrick and Mr. Stabile received the second-best rating, "recommended." The panel rated Ms. Ernsberger "not recommended" for her having failed to participate in the screening process.
First Published May 15, 2011 12:00 am