Supreme Court: In a duel of two top jurists, it's Judge Melvin

Written by Susan Mannella on .

In recent years, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has sometimes disappointed the residents of this commonwealth, even to the extent of becoming the brunt of anger for a legislative pay rise. As never before, the voters should know that they can't afford to seat anyone who does not have the highest ethics and legal acumen.

This election day, the voters are in luck. The two candidates for the open seat on the state's highest appellate court are exceptional -- Superior Court Judge Jack A. Panella, 54, a Democrat from Easton, and his colleague on the Superior Court bench, Judge Joan Orie Melvin, 53, a Republican from Marshall.

Both have risen through the legal ranks, both have had distinguished careers and both are ranked highly recommended by the Pennsylvania Bar Association. In truth, either one would make an excellent Supreme Court justice.

Judge Panella graduated from St. John's University and received his law degree from the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America. He was a practicing attorney and county solicitor before becoming a Common Pleas Court judge in Northampton County and serving for 12 years. He was elected a judge of the Superior Court in November 2003.

In addition to this service, Judge Panella has been heavily involved in policing judges and lawyers themselves. He has served as judge and president judge of the Court of Judicial Discipline and chair of the Judicial Conduct Board. He also wrote a book for Pennsylvania trial judges to help them deal with crimes of sexual violence. The state bar committee said he possesses "a rare combination of intellect, energy and skills."

Judge Melvin, a sister of state Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie, is no less qualified (and as a local judge, she is rated highly recommended by the Allegheny County Bar Association). Although we preferred Superior Court Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen in the GOP primary -- she is older and it seemed her last shot at the top court -- we did take note of Judge Melvin's impressive record.

After attending the University of Notre Dame and receiving her law degree from Duquesne University, she practiced law for five years before being appointed a city magistrate in 1985. After becoming chief magistrate two years later, she founded a domestic violence court, the first such in Pennsylvania. Her record of innovation and service led her to be appointed to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court and she was elected to a full term a year later.

In 1997, she won election to Superior Court and was retained by the voters two years ago. In the state bar's judgment, her written opinions "are cogent and well-reasoned" and she is "recognized as genial and fair-minded, and she has demonstrated sound judicial temperament. She is respected by her colleagues on the Superior Court, the lawyers who have appeared before her and those who have worked with her in the community."

Some voters will decide this near-tie between two stellar candidates on the basis of party affiliation, but we think that both judges have the integrity to decide cases solely on their merit, regardless of their personal or political inclinations. Two other factors are key to us.

One is parochial. All things otherwise being equal, we tend to favor a candidate from the west over one from the east -- the big population centers of the east have no trouble rallying support for their own. On that score, advantage Judge Melvin.

The other consideration is one dear to our core principles. If Judge Panella wins this race, the court will be down to six men and one woman (Justice Debra McCloskey Todd). The other female justice, Jane Cutler Greenspan, agreed not to seek a full 10-year term after Chief Justice Ralph Cappy retired last year.

Advantage, Judge Melvin, who would strike a small but important blow for gender balance by keeping the number of female justices at two.

The Post-Gazette endorses Judge Joan Orie Melvin for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.


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