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Group halts ads about Supreme Court nominees

Thursday, October 25, 2001

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A Virginia corporation will obey a judge's order to stop showing a TV commercial unfavorable to state Supreme Court candidate Kate Ford Elliott but ultimately believes it will win the right to put it back on the air.

The Law Enforcement Alliance of America, which is financing the ad, will make its case during a preliminary injunction hearing tomorrow before Common Pleas Judge Paul F. Lutty Jr., who ordered the firm on Tuesday to stop running the ad and another one favorable to Elliott's opponent, Mike Eakin.

"We believe that the ads are in fact lawful, but it is our intention to cooperate with the order," alliance spokesman Kevin H. Watson said yesterday.

Lutty issued a temporary restraining order halting the commercials after Allegheny County Democratic Chairman Leonard Bodack and state Democratic Chairwoman Christine Tartaglione filed a lawsuit claiming that the alliance was violating the Pennsylvania Election Code.

The Democratic chairs, both of whom are state senators, claimed that the organization failed to meet registration and disclosure requirements for political committees, improperly accepted corporate contributions and improperly spent money to influence next month's election.

Watson said the ads constitute "issue advocacy," not "political speech" subject to the requirements of the state Election Code. He said the alliance believes the ads are legal because they do not tell anyone to support or vote for either candidate or even mention that they are candidates for state Supreme Court.

Theodore J. Chylack, attorney for Bodack and Tartaglione, was equally optimistic that his side would prevail. He said recent case law allows judges to take into account the context and meaning of ads.

"There's no question [the ad] was done during this election cycle and there's no question it was intended to influence the election," he said. "You don't need any magic words. You look at the context of [the ad] and there is case law that will support us in that regard."

Watson rejected the lawsuit's contention that the alliance was a front for the National Rifle Association and associated groups. While the alliance "wholeheartedly" agrees with the NRA on issues relating to guns, it also has taken stands on other matters like video cameras at traffic lights and weightlifting and boxing equipment in prisons, he said.

"We are not a front for the NRA. We do everything under the sun. There are a great chunk of issues that have nothing to do with the NRA," Watson said.

At issue in the lawsuit are two commercials that began running about 10 days ago. One praises Republican Eakin as a "patriot, a prosecutor and a tough-on-crime judge."

The other assails Democrat Elliott, saying she ruled that a murderer's confession should be ignored based on a "legal technicality" and sided against a prosecutor who wanted a tougher sentence for a six-time offender.

Watson said the alliance believes the commercials constitute the kind of issue advocacy permitted in Pennsylvania.

To buttress his argument, he pointed to an article in the Legal Intelligencer in which Sherry Swirsky, general counsel for the state Democratic Committee, was quoted as saying that while the ads might violate the spirit of state campaign finance laws, it did not appear the alliance did anything wrong.

Watson said the alliance became aware of the confession case from a member of the organization. He said the alliance is not connected to, nor has it coordinated its work with, the Eakin campaign.

Eakin has disavowed any association with the ad or the group.

The commercials have become part of an increasingly nasty battle between supporters of Elliott and Eakin, both Superior Court judges. The race will determine which party holds the majority on the state's highest court.

The Pennsylvania Bar Association recently took the unusual step of criticizing state Republicans for distorting Elliott's record in attacks on some of her rulings as a Superior Court judge.

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