Political campaigns for the state Supreme Court used to be staid affairs, featuring lawyers and judges you barely heard of, running for jobs in which they'd rarely be heard from again.
But the uproar over the Legislature's 2005 pay grab changed all that.
The pay increase - blamed for the electoral defeat of former Justice Russell Nigro - was rescinded by the Legislature in late 2005 and restored for Pennsylvania judges by a Supreme Court decision last September. It still figures to be an issue, according to several groups that contend that the state judicial system is long overdue for reforms.
Three of the court's seven seats face a judgment from Pennsylvania voters this year. Two of the seats are vacant, with eight candidates vying to fill them, and incumbent Justice Thomas G. Saylor faces an up-or-down vote on whether he should get another 10-year term.
"There's been a tremendous loss of public confidence in the court," said Duquesne University Law School professor Bruce Ledewitz, who's been following the Supreme Court's activities the past 15 years.
The anti-pay-raise groups have faulted the court's handling of the pay-raise issue on two fronts.
One was the private discussions between Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy and legislative leaders while the pay package was being developed. Cappy urged the leadership to link the pay levels of Pennsylvania judges to that of the federal judiciary.
The critics have also condemned the Supreme Court's failure to enforce the state Constitution, which says that every bill shall be considered on three different days in both the House and the Senate. The 2005 pay package was first unveiled to the public sometime after midnight on July 7 and passed about 2 a.m., just before the Legislature adjourned for the summer.
A Supreme Court spokesman, L. Stuart Ditzen, defended the court on both fronts.
"The chief justice was doing his job, and there was absolutely nothing improper about it," Ditzen said. "He was trying to achieve a reform . . . a pay raise for judges which he felt was desperately needed."
And the Constitution's language has been interpreted for generations to permit the Legislature to handle the pay increase package as it did, according to Ditzen.
"These practices are based on years and decades of prior rulings, which all build on each other," Ditzen said. "The [Supreme] Court can't just say, 'We're going to do it a different way now.' "
Ledewitz has drafted a 15-point "reform platform" for the Supreme Court. His proposals include a ban on private discussions between justices and government officials, public access to documents dealing with court administration, public meetings when the court considers rule changes and a more transparent process for court appointments to various boards, like the ones that police the ranks of lawyers and judges.
Several of the grassroots groups that fought the pay increase began contacting judicial candidates this week, asking them to comment on the Ledewitz proposals and other issues, like merit selection of judges.
Tim Potts, a leader of the organization Democracy Rising, said other groups sponsoring the judicial questionnaire include the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, the Commonwealth Foundation, Rock the Capital and a newly formed organization, the Pennsylvania Association of Retired State Employees.
Justice Saylor, who practiced law in Somerset County and Harrisburg before becoming a judge, was the only member of the Supreme Court to dissent last year when the court restored the 2005 pay increase for Pennsylvania judges.
At least four candidates in each political party are seeking nominations for the two Supreme Court vacancies, created by Nigro's defeat and the retirement of Justice Sandra Schultz Newman.
Nigro considered running again, but he said this week that he's decided against it, opting instead to seek a part-time position on Philadelphia's Board of Revision of Taxes and to continue his mediation/arbitration business.
"In the end, I just didn't have it in me to go out and raise the money to run," Nigro told the Daily News. He estimated the cost of a Supreme Court campaign would be at least $1.5 million.
The four Republican hopefuls include:
Maureen Lally-Green, 57, a former Duquesne law professor who's been a judge on Superior Court since 1998.
Michael L. Krancer, 49, of Bryn Mawr, a former commercial litigator, now chief judge and chairman of the state's Environmental Hearing Board. The board handles nonjury appeals of decisions by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Paul P. Panepinto, 57, a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge who ran the city's Family Court for five years and now handles complex civil cases.
Jeffrey E. Piccola, 58, a Harrisburg lawyer and state legislator for the past 30 years, former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, active on a broad range of legal issues reaching the legislature.
The four Democratic candidates are:
C. Darnell Jones II, 57, a Philadelphia judge for the past 20 years and president judge of Common Pleas Court for the past year.
Seamus McCaffery, 56, a former Philadelphia policeman and administrative judge of Municipal Court, who gained local fame for handling drunks and other miscreants in Eagles Court at Veterans Stadium. He was elected to Superior Court in 2003.
Debra Todd, 49, a Superior Court judge from Pittsburgh. She worked for U. S. Steel and in private practice before winning election to Superior Court in 1999.
John Milton Younge, 51, a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge since 1995, following work as a staff attorney with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties are expected to endorse two candidates for the Supreme Court slots at state committee meetings in February.
If unendorsed candidates stay in the race, voters will choose from among the broad field in the May 15 primary election, determining party candidates for the ballot in November.
A judicial evaluation panel set up by the Pennsylvania Bar Association has already given ratings to seven of the eight candidates.
Among the Republicans, Lally-Green and Panepinto were both rated as "highly recomended," while Krancer was rated as "recommended." Piccola's candidacy is still being evaluated.