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Key Pennsylvania judicial races dot landscape

Robert Byer never grew accustomed to the politics.

While serving an appointed term on Commonwealth Court in 1991, he campaigned for an open seat. He lost, but he remembers the rumor mill rumbling about whether a decision on the bench came down to who might donate to his campaign.

“It was horrible,” said Byer, an attorney who heads the appellate division for Downtown-based Duane Morris LLP. “Every time I made a case involving any degree of controversy, I was worried about how people would perceive this.”

This year, 18 candidates are pursuing statewide judicial offices, 245 are seeking county-level seats, and dozens more are seeking magisterial district judgeships. Six Democrats and six Republicans are running for three open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, headlining the odd-year election with a chance to decide the partisan makeup of the seven-member bench.

All are learning the delicate dance required of judicial candidates, choreographed in the name of preserving impartiality. State code prohibits them from making statements that could indicate how they might rule in a case. They are barred from directly asking for donations. But hallmarks of a partisan process remain: political endorsements, private fundraisers and interest-group influence.

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said contributions often are highest among those with an interest in the courts, such as lawyers or litigants.

“We have heard that plaintiffs’ trial lawyers, business groups, unions and groups advocating particular policy decisions are gearing up to be involved,” Marks said. “Some are sending candidate questionnaires, making endorsements, notifying their members, and/or will make financial contributions.”

State Republican and Democratic parties endorsed candidates at winter meetings. Pennsylvania is one of 39 states with elected judges.

Byer is one of its critics, noting that attorneys can donate money to a candidate and appear before him or her in court.

“That puts the judge in one heck of a position, doesn’t it?” he said. “If the judge rules in favor of the party who made the contribution, the other party might conclude that’s the reason.”

Pennsylvanians won’t know who is funding races until April 7, the first campaign finance report filing deadline.

Nonpartisan recommendations for statewide races come from the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Jim Creenan, president of the Allegheny County Bar Association, said the group will release its recommendations for local candidates soon. Their process, he said, is conducted by 24 members with no ties to campaigns.

“We have a ratings system designed to reflect each candidate’s aptitude and ability to serve in that office they are seeking,” he said. “We don’t advocate on behalf of any candidate but we do publicize the ratings as a public service.”

Allegheny County Labor Council president Jack Shea said his group’s recommendation process involves interviews. Candidates, he said, avoid getting too partisan.

“Rarely do I ever hear anyone not comment on anything,” Shea said. “Every once in awhile they’ll say, ‘I can’t really get into that,’ and they’ll answer in some way, but they won’t get into any specifics about what might come before them.”

Byer, a Republican-turned-independent, considered running for Supreme Court in 1997 and decided against it. It reminded him of “everything I thought was bad about the system,” he said.

“If you’re going to run an effective political campaign, you have to do things that are inconsistent with being a good judge, there’s just no doubt about it,” he said. “You get a judge that likes politics too much and that’s a dangerous thing.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].


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