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The efforts of groups like PACleanSweep to oust all of the judges up for retention were limited in their effect to a certain geographic area of the state, with only one of the 67 judges unable to keep his job.

But whether it was the efforts of PACleanSweep or the educational efforts of groups like Democracy Rising PA, more attention was paid to judicial candidates up for retention and the margin by which they won is smaller than in previous campaigns.

The seven appellate court jurists up for retention all won by about a 2-1 margin, averaging about a 64 percent approval.

“I think it was really a victory for judicial independence,” Justice Thomas G. Saylor, who was retained by 66.7 percent, said of the retention of himself and all of the appellate judges.

PACleanSweep founder Russ Diamond said he was one of just a few small groups pushing to oust the judges and had limited resources compared to the bar associations and campaigns pushing against his message.

Despite the fact that all but one judge was retained, Diamond felt the group’s effort was a success.

“We’ve gotten people to take a look at these retention issues,” he said.

Whereas the gap between “yes” and “no” votes used to be at 4-1 or 3-1, Diamond said they are now at 2-1. He said he doesn’t think the ire of the pay-raise fiasco of 2005 has dissipated.

Several bar association leaders across the state said they were breathing a sigh of relief yesterday when the retention results came in.

“Frankly, the retention election, as it unfolded in this election cycle, restored what had been the historic focus and intent of the constitutional convention of 1967 – if a judge has discharged his or her duties faithfully, they should be retained in a nonpartisan election,” Pennsylvania Bar Association President Andrew F. Susko said. “This election restores an important component of our system.”

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said PACleanSweep’s message would have been more effective if it only advocated for the removal of a few judges. Many voters who might have been predisposed to voting “no” for retention might have heard the group’s message and thought, “this is over-the-top,” Marks said.

“There were more ‘no’ votes than in the past but certainly nowhere near enough to vote people out of office,” she said.

While she might not agree with their message, Marks said the added attention to retention elections is a positive thing. Pushing for the retention of all judges without basing decisions on merit is just as bad as voting them all out, she said.

“The numbers show that people aren’t just using retention as a rubber stamp,” Marks said.

Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising PA, said his group didn’t agree with PACleanSweep’s push to oust all of the judges.

Potts said he doesn’t think the pay-raise issue played a large part in this race at all, or the last one for that matter.

When ousted Supreme Court Justice Russell M. Nigro lost his retention race in the “white hot heat of the pay-raise disaster” it was only by a very narrow margin, Potts said. He said he didn’t think the state was likely to see more judges knocked off the courts two years after the pay-raise issue.

Potts would agree the attention on retention elections is a major improvement. He said candidates will do a better job in 2009 of communicating with voters, and groups like Democracy Rising will better educate voters on the candidates, he said. This election was “stunningly different” in that articles could be found on the individual candidates.

While PACleanSweep may not have had much support, Saylor said judges up for retention “took it very seriously” because of what happened to Nigro and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Shultz Newman in the last election.

He said the increased attention forced voters to make a choice and put these races into perspective by looking at merit. Saylor said he was gratified to see that the press came out in support of merit-based retention.

Saylor was the only justice to dissent against the court reinstating the pay raises for judges. He said his dissent in the case only helped him win retention to the extent that it was part of his judicial record.

Saylor, who raised more than $450,000 in his retention campaign, said judges might have to continue focusing heavily on retention campaigns in the next judicial-election cycle in 2009.

“Maybe things will never quite go back to the way it used to be,” he said.

Saylor said his hope, however, is that there will be more context to future retention elections and there will not have to be an “overly active engagement of retention judges.”

If the focus on retention continues as it now stands, Saylor said the process would be politicized.

Breakdown of Retention Votes

Three of the state’s 67 counties – Dauphin, Lebanon and Perry – voted to oust all of the appellate court judges, including Saylor. Three others – Cumberland, Mifflin and Juniata – voted “no” on several of the statewide candidates up for retention.

Marks pointed out that those counties are also either close to or where most of PACleanSweep’s leadership is based.

Philadelphia and its four surrounding counties had high percentages of “yes” votes for retention of statewide jurists. So did the majority of the border counties along the northeastern part of the state, including Bradford County, where the only judge not to be retained presides.

Only 35.3 percent of the 16,456 votes in his race were to retain Bradford County Common Pleas Court Judge John C. Mott.

Media reports leading up to the election show a campaign in the area to oust Mott after his wife pled guilty to taking at least $100,000 from the Canton Borough Water and Sewer Authority. Mott said in a letter Sunday to the Daily and Sunday Review out of Towanda, Pa., that, according to a published report, 70 percent of the lawyers in the local bar association supported his retention.

Mott said in an interview with The Legal that he knew the race would be close, but he was surprised by the margin. He said were it not for what happened with his wife, his retention campaign wouldn’t have been much of an issue. He said he doesn’t see himself running again in two years.

A Philadelphia Municipal Court judge who was under fire from the local bar association and several women’s organizations for a recent ruling in a rape case made it through the retention process easily.

Judge Teresa Carr Deni changed a rape charge against a defendant to “theft of services” in a case where the plaintiff was a prostitute. The Philadelphia Bar Association slammed the judge for the ruling, but had already recommended that she be retained. And she was, by 65.9 percent of the vote.

Deni’s attorney, George Bochetto of Bochetto & Lentz, said she was “very gratified” to be retained and that the “last-minute issue” brought before the election didn’t overshadow her body of work on the court.

On the Pennsylvania Superior Court, Joan Orie Melvin was retained by 66.7 percent, John Musmanno by 61.8 percent and Correale F. Stevens by 63.7 percent. For the Commonwealth Court, Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter was retained by 63.2 percent, Bernard McGinley by 62.5 percent and Doris Smith-Ribner by 62.7 percent.

Peter Hall contributed to this report.

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