Nigro calls vote to oust him 'an irrational thing' The Pa. Supreme Court justice says he was the wrong target for voters' outrage over the pay raise.

Posted: November 10, 2005

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Russell M. Nigro said yesterday he had been voted out of office - the first state appellate judge ever to be rejected in a yes-or-no retention vote - for something "I was not responsible for."

And that, he said, was the pay raise that state legislators voted for themselves earlier this year, setting off outrage around the state.

"It doesn't make any difference whether you're good, bad or indifferent - you're gone," said Nigro in summing up the unprecedented action by voters. "What they did was an irrational thing. They sent a misguided missile."

Andrew A. Chirls, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, agreed.

"We've lost a good jurist," Chirls said. "I'm sorry to say that voter anger over this pay raise turned into the firing of Justice Nigro, who, as far as I can tell, had nothing to do with the pay raise."

Chirls said Nigro, 59, who was seeking a second 10-year term on the high court, had been an effective and well-regarded justice.

Lynn A. Marks, director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, also said that Nigro had earned a reputation as an able and even-tempered jurist.

She said she thought the "vote no" movement that swept areas of the state may have been prompted by a feeling that "the court was not acting as an independent branch of government and was too tied to the legislature."

Nigro's defeat stunned the legal community in Philadelphia and surrounding counties. Judges seeking retention traditionally are reelected by wide margins.

Nigro said in an interview that he and Justice Sandra Schultz Newman, who narrowly won retention in Tuesday's election, were targeted for ouster by newspapers and talk radio hosts in sections of western, central and northeastern Pennsylvania.

Since lawmakers were not up for reelection, Nigro said, voters took out their wrath on members of the court.

"It was never about my record," he said. "Nobody was talking about my record. I believe the public was so angry with the legislature they became blinded. They said: 'We don't care. Get rid of him.' "

The defeat was doubly surprising because Nigro had taken the unusual step during the summer and fall of raising a campaign fund. Judges seeking reelection almost never spend money on advertising. But Nigro said in July that he wanted to be prepared to respond if he came under surprise attack.

He said at the time he feared that a conservative out-of-state group might launch a negative ad blitz, a tactic that had been used to unseat appellate judges in several other states.

Nigro enlisted several former bar chancellors to raise a $1 million war chest.

But the attack came from a different direction - from within the state in a thunder of protest from angry voters.

Nigro said he conducted a poll in the weeks preceding the election that showed voter anger at all levels of government, including the Supreme Court.

He said he began running ads six days before Election Day to counter the drumbeat calling for his ouster.

"I suspect it helped to some degree," he said. "But it didn't help enough.

"I'm not angry," he added. "I'm deeply disappointed. I feel I put all these years in and didn't get any credit for it."

He will be out of a job in January. He said he did not yet have any plans for the future.

Nigro noted that all the state's lawmakers, who recently moved toward rescinding their controversial pay raise, will still have their jobs.

"What did they really accomplish?" Nigro asked, speaking again of the voters. "I don't know what they thought they accomplished by knocking me out of the box."

Contact staff writer L. Stuart Ditzen at 215-854-2431 or sditzen@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Emilie Lounsberry contributed to this article.

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