Independent candidate hoping to break up two-party election for state Supreme Court | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Independent candidate hoping to break up two-party election for state Supreme Court

Pennsylvania is one of just six states with partisan judicial elections

Judge Paul Panepinto is the first independent candidate to run for the state Supreme Court since 1993. In campaigning for the upcoming November election, he says he’s offering voters 25 years of judicial experience on the bench and a nonpartisan approach to the highest court in the commonwealth.

“This is an effort to say to the people [that] you have a choice: those nominated by a political party … or someone … not beholden to … a party label,” says Panepinto, of Philadelphia. “The political parties want to exclude other [candidates] from going to the people. I don’t know why I didn’t do this before, but it just hit me like a bolt of lightning that it’s the right thing to do.”

The independent affiliation is relatively new for Panepinto: He admittedly ran as a Republican in past elections, including a 2009 bid for the Supreme Court. But now he’s asking voters to put aside party affiliations in the Supreme Court race. Pennsylvania is one of only six states where judicial candidates run on party lines.

“I think voters should look at the record of a person,” says Panepinto. “How long have they been a judge, what areas does he handle, has he ever been cited for any judicial ethics or any issues? I haven’t as a lawyer, and I haven’t in 25 years as a judge.”

The election will fill a record number of vacancies. Panepinto will face off against Democrats Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty and David Wecht, and Republicans Judith Olson, Michael George and Anne Covey. Voters will pick three.

As of Sept. 14, Panepinto had spent $50,000 of his own money on the campaign. He’s put another $150,000 into his campaign fund.

“I believe in this effort, and I’m willing to do what I have to do. I’m not depending on other people to support it,” Panepinto says. “It’s a commitment I made to Pennsylvania — to work to get the position where I feel I can make a difference.”

But Panepinto also admits he has sought endorsements from organizations like the “family-friendly,” pro-life Life PAC and the Fraternal Order of Police, though he says these groups wouldn’t impact his rulings on the bench.

“I’m Catholic and I’m pro-life, but I follow the law. Whatever the law is, that’s what I follow,” says Panepinto. “If you’re pro-life and the jury gives you a death penalty, I can’t not enter in the death-penalty sentence. As a judge, I have to do that. The Constitution is what I have to follow.”

And Panepinto is critical of former Supreme Court jurists, both Republicans and Democrats. 

When Panepinto ran as a Republican for the open Supreme Court seat, he was defeated by Republican candidate Joan Orie Melvin. Since then, Melvin has been convicted of using legislative and judicial staff for campaign work, and sentenced to three years’ house arrest.

Her fellow justice, Democrat Seamus McCaffery, resigned after he was linked to the statewide pornographic-email scandal. 

These scandals have paved the way for an independent candidate to run, says Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a court-watchdog organization. While Marks’ group does not weigh in on candidates, she did note that Panepinto has run as a Republican in several elections. 

“It’s timely to have an independent nonpartisan candidate in light of the recent turmoil on the court,” says Marks. “While it’s significant, I don’t think it should be overestimated.”

Panepinto acknowledges that people might question his party change, but he urges voters to look at his record. He’s served as a judge in criminal, civil and family courts. In listing his qualifications, he highlights his work with truancy, his efforts to speed up case adjudication, and his involvement in helping children get adopted.

He’s also getting support from colleagues like Judge Cheryl Allen, a Republican who also ran for the Supreme Court during the primary. 

“It takes a tremendous amount of courage to attempt to pave an independent path to the court. We really do need a committed independent on the bench,” says Allen. “They have to be free of politics. They have to remember that they’re there to serve the people of the commonwealth. Unfortunately, we’ve seen justices removed from the bench either for disciplinary or criminal charges. These people did not uphold the law.”

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