State Reps get bad news from high court

The state Supreme Court issued a three-sentence order yesterday spelling nothing but trouble for two state House members from Philadelphia, Thomas Blackwell and Harold James.

The state's high court overturned a ruling by Commonwealth Court Judge Doris A. Smith-Ribner and ordered her to consider a challenge against James's nominating petitions, seeking to have him thrown off the April 22 primary ballot.

Gov. Rendell: OK'd filing extension due to storm.

Simultaneously, the Supreme Court order appears to close off an argument that Blackwell's lawyers were planning to use in a last-ditch bid to preserve Blackwell's bid for a third term in Harrisburg.

The issue involves the deadline for challenging the voter signature petitions that every candidate must file to get on the ballot. For state House candidates like Blackwell and James, the requirement is 300 valid signatures from registered Democratic voters living in the legislative district.

The original deadline for submitting signatures was Feb. 12, and the deadline for challenging them was seven days later.

But a raging snowstorm in central Pennsylvania kept some candidates from reaching the state election bureau in time, and Gov. Rendell extended the filing deadline from 5 p.m. on Feb. 12 to noon on Feb. 14. Challenges were due seven days later.

James's opponent, Kenyatta Johnson, challenged James's petitions on grounds that he improperly listed himself as the person circulating his petitions, when in fact they were circulated by other people.

Johnson filed the challenge in mid-afternoon on Feb. 21. James's attorney, John Sabatina, contended that the challenge should have been filed before noon. Ribner-Smith agreed and dismissed the challenge, without hearing any of Johnson's evidence on the alleged petition problems.

The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling yesterday that the challenge had been "timely filed" and remanding the James case for a hearing next Wednesday.

James declined comment yesterday, but Sabatina said he wasn't worried.

"I have every confidence in the world that Harold James will stay on the ballot," he said.

Blackwell is in a tougher position because Commonwealth Court's president judge, Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, has already ordered him removed from the ballot, for having only 184 valid signatures on his petitions.

Blackwell's attorney, George Bochetto, had been planning to base his Supreme Court appeal on the same issue raised by James, that the challenge by Blackwell's opponent, Vanessa L. Brown, hadn't been filed until mid-afternoon on Feb. 21.

Bochetto said yesterday that he intends to proceed with Blackwell's appeal, while looking for some distinction between his case and the James case.

But that will be difficult because the Supreme Court hasn't yet issued a written opinion explaining its ruling.

"No technical defense should save a candidate when the petitions are so obviously flawed," said Brown's attorney, Adam Bonin. He said they were filled with "pages upon pages of forged information." *