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What is the Meaning of the GOP Sweep of Statewide Judicial Offices?

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | November 5, 2009

Posted by Cliff Tuttle (c) 2009

SUMMARY: The populist wave that created the anti-midnight pay grab movement is alive and deciding elections.

The Republican Party in this Commonwealth has been pronounced dead — a suicide by some accounts. And there is a lot to be said for this viewpoint. Suddenly falling far behind the Dems in registration, lacking leadership, short on winning issues, the party didn’t seem to have much of a future, at least in the short run.

And then, out of the blue, with no warning, Republican statewide judicial candidates win just about everything. So what gives?

For starters, the fabled Obama-Rendell machine that produced astounding youth/minority/first-time voter turnout numbers last year was out to lunch. Those voters didn’t show this year, leaving the field to the older and far more conservative steady voters. But there had to be more involved. After all, the registration gap was so wide and the Republicans campaign effort was pretty ordinary. And yet, undeniably, it happened. Why?

Judge Joan Orie Melvin, that’s why. A few years ago, she made a savvy political move. Unlike virtually every sitting judge, she very publicly refused to accept the much-vilified midnight pay grab, sending a check for the difference back to the State Treasury every payday. This became her trademark and despite a barrage of negative-campaign brickbats from the opposition, she managed to keep that message before the voters. That’s what the electorate, the ones that voted this year, remembered. Ask them if you don’t believe me.

Judicial candidates have so many restrictions to observe while campaigning, most have a hard time getting noticed, let alone remembered. Having a lucky name and a good ballot position are usually the best they can do. But not this year.

Judge Robert J. Colville, a Democrat with a storied name and a position at the top of a crowded ballot, is currently in fifth place in the race for the Superior Court — behind three Republicans and a much lesser known Democrat. In normal times, he would have been the top vote getter for the office. But these are not normal times. Orie Melvin, the judge who turned down the pay raise, managed to drag three Republicans to victory in the Superior Court race and two Republicans onto the Commonwealth Court on her coat tails.

Next year, with well-known names appearing on the ballot for Governor, US Senator and a full complement of Congress people, whoever can seize the banner of the populist cause that the pay raise issue exemplified, will probably win. Big.



CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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