Big names support little-known Allegheny judge candidates

| Monday, May 11, 2009

A Steelers favorite, a former mayor and the district attorney are among the famous faces involved in the race for five seats on the Allegheny County Common Pleas bench.

None is actually running for judge, though.

Some of the 15 candidates in the May 19 primary hope endorsements from the likes of Rocky Bleier and Sophie Masloff in local TV spots will separate them from the rest. Because beyond the big campaign signs, most candidates' names carry little recognition in these races.

"The truth is, that's the huge problem," said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. "Voters should try and get as much information as they can about the candidates. The problem is in local elections the candidates don't have enough money to let you know everything about them."

Forest Hills District Judge Susan Evashavik DiLucente shows endorsements from Sen. Sean Logan and county Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty in her TV ad before it ends with its most famous face: former Pittsburgh Mayor Masloff, declaring, "I'm choosin' Judge Susan."

Attorney Michele Zappala Peck features a photo on her Web site of herself with her dad, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Zappala, and her brother, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

Attorney Alex Bicket called on family friend and former Steelers halfback Bleier for help in his ads.

"I don't think of Rocky as an endorsement. I regard him as a friend who's helping the campaign," Bicket said. "People gravitate to him because he is so well-known and it's helpful because people know his story in the city."

Some candidates hope voters look beyond names, to experience.

"I'm a kid who grew up on Decatur Street in Manchester," said Judge Joe Williams, appointed in November to fill a vacancy. He must win a 10-year term to stay. "If your father's a judge, you're already starting on third base. My granddad was a janitor in this courthouse and cleaned the room I'm in now."

Attorney Phil Ignelzi said he doesn't know if an endorsement would help in an election he thinks will draw low turnout.

"Any little thing can make a difference," he said. "It's hard for the voters to get the information about the judges."

The 24-member Judiciary Committee of the Allegheny County Bar Association rated the candidates from "highly recommended" to "unqualified" based on interviews and other research. Committee members are elected by the association's 6,600 members.

The judicial candidates, with their ratings by the bar association:

• Carolyn Saldari Bengel, 42, of Harrison, district judge 16 years and former assistant public defender. Bar association rating: "not recommended at this time."

• Alex Bicket, 52, of Mt. Lebanon, partner in the firm Zimmer Kunz. A native of Cape Town, South Africa, and former high school teacher, Bicket is a 21-year trial lawyer who focuses on civil litigation. Bar rating: "highly recommended."

• Susan Evashavik DiLucente, 46, of Forest Hills, district judge for eight years. She has practiced as an attorney for 20 years in the firm of Evashavik & Evashavik with her father and two brothers. Bar rating: "recommended."

• Jeffrey K. Eisenberg, 48, of Point Breeze, attorney for 17 years, including the past five with the Juvenile Court Project, which often works as a parental advocate. Bar rating: "not recommended at this time."

• Phil Ignelzi, 52, of McCandless, former federal prosecutor. His firm Ogg Cordes Murphy and Ignelzi LLP focuses on medical malpractice cases. A lawyer for 28 years, he also handles white-collar criminal defense. Bar rating: "highly recommended."

• Arnie Klein, 47, of Upper St. Clair, attorney in the firm Bacharach & Klein who has worked in all court divisions, including federal court. Bar rating: "recommended."

• Joseph V. Luvara, 53, of Carnegie, lawyer since 1996 who works as federal mediator and owned a financial planning business. Bar rating: "unqualified."

• Michael F. Marmo, 54, of Ohio Township focuses on elder law, estates and trusts, real estate and municipal law, and has served on the Board of Viewers since 1995. Bar rating: "recommended."

• Hugh Fitzpatrick McGough, 53, of Shadyside spent two years with Ward McGough LLC in labor and employment law, municipal law and criminal defense. Worked as an assistant solicitor for Pittsburgh. Bar rating: "highly recommended."

• Michele Zappala Peck, 49, of Mt. Lebanon graduated from Duquesne University law school in 2003 and worked for the firm Hollinshead Mendelson Bresnahan and Nixon for four years before she was appointed to the Board of Viewers. Bar rating: "not recommended at this time."

• Jennifer Satler, 34, of Washington's Landing, criminal defense attorney, worked for the county Public Defender's Office for eight years after graduating from University of Pittsburgh law school in 2000. Bar rating: "unqualified."

• Michael S. Sherman, 46, of Ross, criminal defense attorney who worked as an attorney for the state police. Bar rating: "recommended."

• Don Walko, 56, of North Side, a state representative since 1995 and member of House Judiciary Committee since 1997. Bar rating: "not recommended at this time."

• Joe Williams, 57, of Penn Hills, criminal division judge since November who was in private practice 23 years. Bar rating: "highly recommended."

• Leah Williams-Duncan, 43, of Brighton Heights spent eights years as family court hearing officer. Bar rating: "recommended."

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