John Baer | . . . as, statewide, reform fizzles

PENNSYLVANIA'S so-called "reform movement" yesterday lost more of its tenuous grip on state politics as voters rejected reformers' calls to reject statewide judges.

Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor easily won his yes/no retention election in the face of a "So long, Saylor" effort pushed by anti-pay-raise activists.

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Showing fancy footwork while awaiting results last night is state Supreme Court candidate Seamus McCaffery.

And six other state judges on Superior and Commonwealth courts, including Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner of Philadelphia, were headed to retention victories, too.

The throw-them-all-out approach urged by groups such as PACleanSweep no doubt struck many voters as just too unreasonable.

Geography, gender or political party didn't matter; voters kept easterners, westerners, men, women, Republicans and Democrats.

This despite grassroots efforts to re-awaken awareness in the normally sleepy retention process by urging "no" votes, especially for Saylor, in an attempt to duplicate the ouster of former Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro two years ago.

The intent was to continue punishing the high court for its involvement in pay-raise politics and to send a message that pay-raise anger lives.

Apparently it does not.

The pitchfork rebellions of '05 and '06, when irate voters, especially in western and central counties, defeated incumbents - ousting legislative leaders, a total of two-dozen lawmakers and a Supreme Court justice - might well be passing into history.

And so might Republican control of the state courts.

Two Democrats, Philly's Seamus McCaffery and Pittsburgh's Debra Todd, both state Superior Court judges, appeared headed for victory in races for two open Supreme Court seats.

With 80 percent of the statewide vote tallied, McCaffery was the top vote-getter and Todd had a 100,000- vote lead on the closest Republican, Maureen Lally-Green.

Wins by McCaffery and Todd would tilt the political balance of the high court from 4-3 Republican to 4-3 Democrat after January swearing-ins, assuming Gov. Rendell uses his appointment to replace retiring Chief Justice Ralph Cappy with another Democrat.

A party shift also looked possible on state Superior Court, where the GOP was holding an 8-7 edge and where three seats were up for grabs.

But late last night the race, which includes Philly Judge John Milton Younge, was too close to call.

No matter how the judicial races end, leaders of both statewide parties, Democratic chairman T.J. Rooney and GOP boss Bob Gleason, say they'll soon sit down to discuss seriously a joint push to end statewide judge elections and replace them with some form of merit selection.

Such an effort could be the only reform to emerge from yesterday's vote.

That's because the overall message suggests voters are settled down. And that could mean the Legislature's slow-moving crawl towards broad reforms in areas such as campaign financing and transparency in government comes screeching to a halt.

Think about it.

Without pressure from without, little happens from within.

I suspect there's no greater interest anywhere in these judicial outcomes than there is within the Legislature.

Lawmakers, after all, took their cue from the '05 defeat of Nigro and quickly repealed their pay grab.

They got the message then, and acted fast.

Now, however, the message received is more like an "all clear" signal with a subtext saying, "Damn the reforms, full speed ahead."

It's another nail in reform's coffin.

It comes just two weeks after state House veterans defeated a measure to reform the House Ethics Committee.

I wrote then that the anti-reform message was clear.

Today I think the voters underlined it: Instead of "So long, Saylor," it looks like so long, revolution. *

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