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Forum to give platform to Pennsylvania Supreme Court hopefuls

| Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, 9:50 p.m.

Seven judicial candidates will share a stage in Harrisburg this week, each hoping to impress Pennsylvania voters in the final weeks before the state's low-profile, high-stakes Supreme Court race.

Three seats, the most in modern history, are open on the state's highest appellate court. A 90-minute debate Wednesday night among the candidates at Widener University Commonwealth Law School will be televised live on the Pennsylvania Cable Network. All candidates are confirmed to appear, a rare occurrence in a general election that has had few major events.

Though they tend to have the lowest turnout, judicial elections are crucial given the breadth of policy matters that go before the court, Widener law professor Michael Dimino said.

“Different judges decide cases different ways,” he said. “Different judges read the constitution differently; different judges will reach different results.”

During election season, judicial candidates aren't allowed to say how they would rule on particular cases. Instead, Dimino said, they are likely to share their philosophies.

Suzanne Almeida, program director at the nonprofit Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said the forum is a chance to help voters get to know the candidates. The group advocates for merit selection of judges because it takes out the “guesswork” and money of partisan politics, Almeida said.

“Everybody does their best to put out accurate bios and lists of endorsements and questionnaires,” she said, “but really, figuring out whether a judicial candidate is going to be a good judge is a tricky proposition.”

The field includes Republican candidates Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey, Adams County Common Pleas Judge Michael George and Superior Court Judge Judy Olson. Democrats are Superior Court Judge Christina Donohue, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty and Superior Court Judge David Wecht.

The seventh candidate is Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Paul Panepinto, who is running as an independent.

Each is competing for a job that comes with a 10-year term and $203,000 salary on a court buffeted by scandal.

In 2013, former Justice Joan Orie Melvin of Marshall was convicted of corruption-related crimes for using her office for campaign purposes.

Last October, former Justice Seamus McCaffery resigned from the court when the Attorney General's Office discovered inappropriate email communication that included racy photos and bigoted jokes.

This month, Attorney General Kathleen Kane turned over emails with similar offensive content discovered in the account of sitting Justice Michael Eakin.

Law professor Bruce Ledewitz of Duquesne University said voters tend to have difficulty being able to differentiate the candidates when they are limited in what they can discuss, but the court's recent spate of scandals gives the candidates an easy platform.

“They could easily set themselves apart by having a candid discussion about why the court is such a mess,” Ledewitz said.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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