Candidates For Bench Court Voters

Posted: November 03, 1997

Pennsylvania voters, those jarring sounds on your radio station - banging gavels, slamming cell doors and all - can mean but one thing:

A statewide judicial election is just around the corner.

In a rite that increasingly reaches voters through electronic media ads, six people will be elected tomorrow to seats on Pennsylvania's three appellate courts - one Supreme Court justice, one Commonwealth Court judge and four Superior Court judges.

The work they will do is dry but important: reading briefs, pondering case law and deciding such things as whether Pennsylvanians have been fairly treated by police, fairly tried in the courts, fairly taxed by their government.

As one of the candidates, Commonwealth Court Judge Bonnie Leadbetter, jokingly puts it: ``I just

love to sit in the law library and read cases and think about issues and write opinions. I'm a dork!''

Contrast that description with some of the ads you may be hearing these days.

Like the spot about the law-and-order leanings of Superior Court candidate Michael Joyce: ``There is only one judge for Superior Court that repeat offenders call `Maximum Mike.' ''

Or the one for Joyce's tough-on-crime Republican slate mate, James P. MacElree: ``Big Jim MacElree . . . A violent criminal's worst nightmare.''

Other ads offer tamer fare that focuses on courtroom efficiency or glowing judicial ratings.

``No other judge in this state has received a higher rating for judicial excellence,'' says a TV spot for Democratic Superior Court contender John Musmanno.

Then there are those that try to touch all the bases at once. A TV spot for Democrat Joseph Del Sole touts his ``swift justice'' and high judicial rating before showing the judge walking with his son, a uniformed police officer, as the audio says: ``Nobody takes crime more seriously.''

Such messages are deliberately short on specifics. Judicial candidates aren't allowed to talk about where they stand on issues that could come before the courts. Nor are they permitted to say how they might rule on a particular case.

Whatever the message, just getting it out to the voters is an increasingly expensive task.

Campaign finance reports show that in the Supreme Court race alone, Del Sole and his Republican opponent, Thomas Saylor, have collected more than $2 million in campaign donations - and spent most of it on media ads.

Here is a look at the three races:

Del Sole, 56, of Allegheny County, faces Saylor, 50, of Cumberland County, for a Supreme Court vacancy that has existed since 1996, when Chief Justice Robert N.C. Nix Jr. retired.

The winner will become the seventh member of the state's highest court, which administers Pennsylvania's judicial system, hears appeals from Commonwealth and Superior Courts, and reviews all death-penalty cases.

The candidates, both of whom serve on Superior Court, have taken strikingly different campaign approaches.

Del Sole, a judge for 19 years, has emphasized the length of his judicial experience over that of Saylor, who was elected to the bench in 1993. He also points to evaluations issued last winter by a statewide ratings commission sponsored by the Pennsylvania Bar Association. The panel gave him its highest rating but declined to recommend Saylor.

Saylor has made Del Sole's campaign funding his chief issue. He notes that Del Sole has gotten the majority of his war chest from lawyers who might appear in his courtroom. While not accusing Del Sole of being swayed by money, Saylor says the donations create a public ``perception that justice is for sale in Pennsylvania.''

Del Sole said his political contributions from the legal community should be seen as an endorsement of his abilities by those who know his work best. ``I'm proud of the fact that lawyers are supporting my campaign,'' he said.

Saylor, a lawyer for 25 years, is a former director of the state Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection and was the top assistant in the 1980s to then-Attorney General LeRoy Zimmerman.

Del Sole spent 13 years in private practice before becoming a Common Pleas Court judge in Pittsburgh in 1978. He has been a Superior Court judge since 1983 and is a former chairman of the state's Judicial Conduct Board, which investigates complaints of judicial misconduct.

The race for Commonwealth Court, which hears civil cases involving state agencies, pits Leadbetter, 50, a Montgomery County Republican, against Democrat Robert C. Gallo, 60, of Allegheny County.

Leadbetter worked as a state and federal prosecutor for 10 years and spent 15 years in private, civil practice. She received a ``recommended'' nod from the Pennsylvania Bar's ratings panel, which said that she was ``universally affirmed by lawyers who had appeared before her'' and that she showed ``outstanding judicial temperament.''

Gallo, a former steelworker, touts himself as a modern Horatio Alger, the last Pennsylvanian to pass the state bar exam without attending law school. He is a former Sharpsburg Borough (Allegheny County) councilman and onetime regional director for the Office of Economic Opportunity who had a private practice for 15 years before becoming a judge. He received a ``not recommended'' rating from the state Bar ratings commission because he did not participate in the process.

Four seats are open on Superior Court, which annually rules on hundreds of civil and criminal appeals.

The Republican slate consists of MacElree, 50, of Chester County; Joyce, 48, of Erie County; Corry Stevens, 50, of Luzerne County; and Joan Orie Melvin, 41, of Allegheny County. All are Common Pleas Court judges.

Democrats are fielding four candidates from Allegheny County: Common Pleas Court Judges Gene Strassburger, 53, and Musmanno, 55; and lawyers Debra Todd, 40, and Kevin James Flaherty, 45.

MacElree became a judge in 1992 after three terms as Chester County District Attorney. His campaign has promoted him as a tough sentencing judge with a reputation for going after violent criminals and drug dealers. The Bar's ratings panel gave him a ``not recommended'' assessment, saying he lacked the necessary ``scholarship, detachment and objectivity'' for Superior Court.

Joyce was a private-practice lawyer for eight years and has been a judge for 12. He, too, has waged a law-and-order campaign and says his decisions are affirmed consistently when appealed. The Bar panel also rated him ``not recommended,'' saying he sometimes showed ``a closed mind and predisposition'' in handling criminal cases.

Stevens served four terms in the state legislature, worked four years as Luzerne County District Attorney, and became a judge in 1992. The Bar panel rated him ``recommended,'' saying that he showed ``professionalism and even temperament'' and that his ``diverse experience would provide a unique perspective to the court.''

Melvin is a former chief magistrate of Pittsburgh's Municipal Court, where she started the state's first domestic-violence court and began an alternative-sentencing program that involved community service. She has been a Common Pleas Court judge for six years. The Bar panel rated her ``recommended,'' saying she had a ``reputation for fairness, integrity, competency and good judicial temperament.''

Strassburger clerked for a state Supreme Court justice, was deputy city solicitor in Pittsburgh, and worked in private practice before becoming a judge in 1987. He is a former administrative judge of the Allegheny County's family-court division. The Bar panel gave him a ``highly recommended'' rating, saying he showed ``outstanding legal scholarship, experience and integrity.''

Musmanno, a judge for 15 years, is chief of the Allegheny County Court's civil division. He also was a district justice for 12 years and has worked as a trial lawyer. The state Bar panel rated him ``highly recommended,'' citing his ``excellent judicial temperament and a high degree of legal scholarship.''

Todd has been a lawyer for 15 years, mostly in civil litigation, mostly representing corporate clients. She has also served as a court-appointed special master and arbitrator. The Bar panel rated her ``recommended,'' saying she was ``even-tempered, personable and highly regarded by her peers.''

Flaherty, a lawyer for nine years, is a former public defender and prosecutor who now handles criminal and personal injury cases in private practice. He was rated ``not recommended'' by the Bar panel because he declined to participate in the ratings process.

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