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Baer to face Melvin in Supreme Court race

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

By James O'Toole, Post-Gazette Politics Editor

Judge Max Baer, running first in a five-man field for the Democratic nomination for Supreme Court, won the right to face Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin, a former colleague in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, who was unopposed for the Republican nomination.

Judge Max Baer, a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania Supreme Court, takes a break at his headquarters on Second Avenue after the polls closed last night. His wife, Beth Baer, center, greets a supporter. (Martha Rial/Post-Gazette)

The Supreme Court, in addition to being the state's highest appeals court, has administrative responsibility for the state's entire judicial system, including county courts and district justices.

With 94 percent of the statewide ballots tallied, Baer had a wide lead in the unofficial results. He was trailed by Judge Cheryl Allen of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court; Judge John Herron of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court; Judge James M. DeLeon of Philadelphia Municipal Court; and Judge James Murray Lynn, who also sits on Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

Before being elected to Superior Court, Melvin served as a Pittsburgh city magistrate and an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge.

Baer, the self-styled fighting judge, has served on the local bench since 1989. From 1993 to 1999, he was administrative judge of the family division. Both Supreme Court nominees were rated highly recommended by the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

The most heat in the appellate court races was generated by the Republican State Committee's fierce effort to defend its slate of endorsed candidates for Superior Court. The GOP-anointed trio was challenged by Jacqueline Shogan, a Westmoreland County lawyer who practices with the Downtown firm of Thorp Reed & Armstrong.

The GOP organization ran ads contending that she was unqualified for the bench. Shogan had been rated "not recommended" by the Pennsylvania Bar Association because she did not submit to its evaluation process.

Her well-funded campaign rebutted the GOP attacks with her own extensive advertising, trying to wrest one of the three nominations from a field rounded out by Judge Palmer Dolbin of Schuykill County; Grainger Bowman, a lawyer and former assistant district attorney from Cumberland County; and Susan Gantman, a lawyer and former prosecutor from Montgomery County.

With 94 percent of the votes counted, the unofficial returns showed her narrowly trailing Dolbin for the third nomination. Bowman was leading, followed by Gantman.

At stake in the battle was not just one court seat, but the clout of the GOP's statewide organization. In recent years, the Republican state committee has been effective in avoiding primary fights by persuading would-be candidates to defer to the state committee's consensus choices for the statewide courts. The resources saved by eliminating primary fights have contributed to the GOP's almost unbroken run of general election victories in recent appellate court contests.

Two years ago, John Bender, a district justice from O'Hara, managed to crack the GOP slate, and senior party officials were determined to avoid a similar defeat.

The Democratic race was left a seven-person free-for-all after the Democratic State Committee failed to reach consensus on a slate.

The winners of the party's three nominations were Judge Jack Panella of Northampton County Common Pleas Court; Judge Seamus McCaffery of Philadelphia Municipal Court; and Judge John J. Driscoll of Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court.

They were followed by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Mark I. Bernstein, former Schuylkill County District Attorney Claude A. Lord Shields, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge William Manfredi and Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Robert S. Blasi.

James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.

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