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Pennsylvania Supreme Court: The more restrained candidate wins

Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican, defeated Jack Panella, a Democrat, to win a 10-year term on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Tuesday. Her margin of victory was 53-47 percent. (Secretary of State's election results page.)

When Melvin takes office in January, the court's philosophical balance will be 4-to-3 for the -- pick the term -- more judicially restrained, conservative, "rule of law," less activist, Republican. The Republican advantage could figure in the decennial legislative redistricting.

However, Michael Riccardi, editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Law Weekly, said, "It's going to continue to be a centrist court on criminal law, and on most civil law matters." (Harrisburg Patriot-News.)

As is typical in judicial races, news coverage focused on campaign spending and negative TV ads. Panella outspent Melvin by almost 3-1, raising nearly $2.35 million -- including a half-million each from the unions and trial lawyers. But the integrity of the state's judicial system has also been an issue with a major scandal involving the Luzerne County courts, where a judge took kickbacks for sentencing juveniles to a private detention facility. (Philadelphia Inquirer coverage.) Last week, the Supreme Court threw out thousands of juvenile convictions.

Then there's the "pay for play" controversy concerning Gov. Ed Rendell's hiring of a Texas law firm and political contributor to sue a pharmaceutical company. The issues resonated with voters, we think. As The Patriot-News reported:

"I think the people of Pennsylvania are hungry to see reform in the courts," said Melvin, who gained statewide notice four years ago when she refused the controversial pay raise passed by the Legislature for all judges and state elected officials.

In light of the record spending on the race, one can anticipate more fervent calls for merit selection and other proposals to remove overt politics from judicial races. There's a group, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, devoted to the cause.

Both Melvin and Panella are Superior Court judges, and Panella will continue in his current office.


UPDATE Hans von Spakosvky of Heritage has more at Nationa Review Online's The Corner, who reports, "Republicans also won both open seats on the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court and at least two of the four open seats on the Superior Court." And Kristen Soltis observes there's political significance in a western-state Republican, Melvin, again winning in the Philadelphia suburbs.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.