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Phone lines are crackling with slime in judge race

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau Chief

HARRISBURG -- With less than a week to go before Tuesday's election, the state Supreme Court race between Democrat Max Baer and Republican Joan Orie Melvin has gotten downright nasty, with charges flying around the state about misleading, unfair and negative campaign tactics.

A group of Democratic legislators yesterday assailed the "thousands" of anonymous taped telephone calls that have been made in recent days to voters in several Pennsylvania cities, apparently on behalf of Superior Court Judge Melvin.

Sen. Michael O'Pake, D-Berks, called on Attorney General Mike Fisher to investigate the source of the calls, which he said are illegal because they contain no disclaimer as to who is paying for them.

"These are sleazy, slimy, smear calls," said state Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney, who's also a state legislator. "It's typical Republican dirty tricks on the eve of an election. I call on Pennsylvania voters to reject these gutter tactics and the candidacy of Joan Orie Melvin."

Melvin's "troops are in the gutter, splattered with mud from this reprehensible behavior," boomed House Democratic Leader H. William DeWeese of Waynesburg.

Orie issued a statement yesterday saying she had nothing to do with the calls and vowing to run a "clean campaign."

"I want to be very clear: I did not authorize these calls," she said. "I do not know who is making them and I'm asking whoever is responsible to stop immediately."

One call mentions a decision that Baer, an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge, made several years ago to allow a young girl to remain in the home of her foster father, who 38 years before had been convicted of incest. The other message mentions Baer's opposition to mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, which Democrats claim is a Republican attempt to make Baer look soft on crime.

Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat and a Baer supporter, also got involved yesterday, saying, "There is nothing more insidious than [anonymous] phone messages" in a Supreme Court race.

Pittsburgh political consultant John Brabender, who's working for Melvin, said, "It's some third party [making the calls]. She had no knowledge those calls were going to be made and is calling on whoever is doing it to stop."

Brabender said Melvin "has signed a pledge put out by the bar association promising not to go negative and she plans to live up to that pledge."

The Democratic attacks on Melvin are the latest in a judicial campaign of escalating bitterness. GOP legislators last week urged voters not to support a "liberal, activist" judge like Baer, who, they said, doesn't respect laws passed by the Legislature and would try to overturn them in his decisions on the high court.

Baer issued a press release criticizing "negative" verbal attacks by Melvin's allies, who he said were "loudly criticizing me in the press for my decision in a complex juvenile case." Baer delayed removing a young girl from a foster father who had been involved in sexually assaulting his own child 38 years earlier despite repeated requests from the county's Department of Children, Youth and Families. He changed his mind when the man refused to take a polygraph test to prove he hadn't committed any other assaults.

Baer said his decision was in the child's best interests. But Rep. Katie True, R-Lancaster, said Baer shouldn't be on the high court "when he has a mentality like that."

Baer, in his release, said to Melvin, "Joan, we've known each other for a number of years and have respected the other's work. Both you and I have tried thousands of cases and both of us have lone cases that can be taken out of context."

Also this week, officials from the National Congress for Fathers and Children, the Concerned Voting Citizens of Allegheny County, and several other Pittsburgh-area groups came to the Capitol to complain that Baer doesn't believe in "shared custody" of children between divorced parents. Baer thinks Melvin was behind those attacks, also.

"How many children have unjustly suffered when one parent is reduced to being nothing more than a visitor?" said Kevin Sheahen of Bethel Park, with the National Congress for Fathers. Sheahen said Baer refused to listen to a psychological expert testifying on Sheahen's behalf in a child custody dispute. Sheahen said Baer boasted about being able to make a decision in a custody case "in two minutes" but then delays for months issuing a written opinion, which is needed for the decision to be appealed.

"Max Baer routinely ignored testimony from expert psychologists," said another critic, Mary Hart of Edgewood. "He said he didn't need help from professionals" but then he took 14 months to write an opinion in a case involving her two sons.

Baer said he does believe in shared custody but not necessarily 50-50 in every case. He said Sheahen is upset because Baer didn't grant him "primary physical custody" of their children.

"I listen to all testimony in a custody case," Baer said. "I sweat bullets over these cases. I do what is best for the kids."

Tom Barnes can be reached at or 1-717-787-4254.

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