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Editorial: Best for the bench / Our choices for Superior, Commonwealth courts

Sunday, October 21, 2001

Because candidates for Pennsylvania courts properly are forbidden from discussing controversial issues that might come before them, judicial races seldom attract the interest that attends campaigns for political offices. That's one reason this newspaper has supported a change to an appointive system for state judges.

In the meantime, voters owe it to themselves to learn as much as they can about the qualifications of judicial candidates.

To aid our readers in that process, the Post-Gazette is making recommendations in races for three statewide courts, based on interviews with the candidates, scrutiny of their credentials and the advice of lawyers whose judgment we trust. We also have paid respectful attention to ratings by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, though we do not agree with its conclusions in every case.

Last Sunday the Post-Gazette endorsed Superior Court Judge Kate Ford Elliott of Pittsburgh for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Today we offer recommendations in races for Superior Court and Commonwealth Court.

Superior Court

The 15-member Pennsylvania Superior Court is the workhorse of the state judicial system, hearing both civil and criminal appeals, usually in three-judge panels. Because it is the final word on many points of law, its decisions must guide trial judges, but sometimes different panels of the court decide similar cases in different ways. That means Superior Court judges should be not only able lawyers but also scholars of the law who weigh every word of their opinions.

Three Superior Court judges will be chosen on Nov. 6 from a field of six candidates. We recommend the following:

Richard B. Klein (Republican). Judge Klein, who was 32 when he was named to the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, still sits on that bench but has not stood still in developing his expertise in legal and administrative matters. He has been rated "highly recommended" by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which noted that "in addition to his responsibilities as a trial judge, the candidate has long been actively involved in efforts to improve the quality of justice."

Mary Jane Bowes (R). Ms. Bowes of Whitehall has been a lawyer since 1979 and currently serves as the corporate counsel for an environmental management firm. The state bar association noted that she is regarded by her peers as "a bright and competent lawyer" but rated her "not recommended" because of her "extremely limited" trial and advocacy experience. We believe this evaluation gives insufficient weight to other assets Ms. Bowes would bring to the court, including her experience as a judicial law clerk for three judges, including a former state chief justice.

David Wecht (Democrat). Mr. Wecht, a Pittsburgher and the Allegheny County register of wills, surprised some observers by seeking an appellate court judgeship that, if he serves his full term, would remove him from politics for 10 years. However, we take Mr. Wecht at his word when he says he is serious about committing to the more cloistered role of an appellate judge, and we are impressed by his erudition and his familiarity with the workings of Superior Court. The state bar, while acknowledging that Mr. Wecht possessed "a sound and impressive academic background and a keen intellect," concluded that "at this time . . . he lacks the experience, temperament, and breadth and depth of knowledge" needed for Superior Court. Voters should give Mr. Wecht the opportunity to prove the bar association wrong.

Commonwealth Court

This nine-judge court is a specialized tribunal responsible for cases involving state agencies, public employees and election law. But while its jurisdiction may be obscure to many voters, Commonwealth Court is renowned among lawyers for the quality of its judges.

That reputation is reflected in the fact that six superior candidates are competing for three seats on the court, including Democrats James J. Dodaro and Jerry Langan and Republican Renee Cohn. Voters may choose only three candidates, however, and these are our recommendations:

Robin Simpson (R). Judge Simpson, a former Commonwealth Court law clerk, has served for 12 years on the Northampton County Common Pleas Court. The only sitting judge running for Commonwealth Court, he also teaches at The Dickinson School of Law and Penn State. In rating him "highly recommended," the state bar praised him as "intelligent, courteous, fair and possessing excellent writing ability, knowledge of the law and judicial temperament."

Mary Hannah Leavitt (R). Ms. Leavitt, an attorney in the Harrisburg office of a Pittsburgh law firm, has pursued a legal career that is tailor-made for service on Commonwealth Court. She began her career as an attorney for the state Insurance Department, later rising to the position of chief counsel. As a practitioner, she has participated in a multitude of cases involving regulatory and constitutional issues. She too is rated "highly recommended" by the state bar.

Irwin W. Aronson (D). Mr. Aronson, a Harrisburg lawyer, has practiced extensively before Commonwealth Court. Though long associated with labor causes, he argues convincingly that he could trade the role of advocate for that of arbiter. That expectation is shared by his peers in the legal profession. He is rated "highly recommended" by the bar association, which called him "ideally suited" for this court.

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