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Using markedly critical language, the Commonwealth Court Thursday denied a motion filed by Ralph Nader’s campaign in the ongoing litigation over the independent presidential candidate’s attempt to get on the ballot in Pennsylvania. The campaign had moved to strike the court’s order this week scheduling hearings to examine tens of thousands of signatures on the petitions Nader filed seeking to secure his place on the November ballot. The court’s order on Monday followed a decision by the state Supreme Court that day reversing the Commonwealth Court’s August decision to strike the independent presidential candidate’s name from the state’s general election ballot. The justices ordered the evidentiary hearings be conducted “forthwith.” The hearings begin Monday and are expected to address, petition line by petition line, challenges to the nomination papers containing thousands of signatures that the campaign filed this summer. Under state election law, the campaign needs 25,697 valid signatures for Nader’s name to appear on the ballot. In Thursday’s opinion, President Judge James Garner Colins singled out West Chester attorney Samuel C. Stretton, who has represented the Nader campaign, for filing a “duplicitous and disingenuous” pleading. “In over 24 years of judicial service, this court has never encountered a pleading which has more misstated the facts and tortured the law as the instant” motion to strike, Colins began his opinion. “Due to ecological concerns for the shortage of trees used in the production of paper, as well as the fiscal concerns for the incredible costs of this matter to the taxpayers of the commonwealth, I shall be exceptionally brief.” Colins said his court had been trying — via scheduling orders — to get Stretton to review the original voter registration records so that stipulations could be made regarding the challenged signatures. But Stretton had been doing “everything within his power to obstruct a timely review aimed solely at determining the validity of the petitions,” Colins wrote. Stretton said the personal attacks in Colins’ opinion were “unfair.” “He apparently doesn’t like me very much,” Stretton said. “All I’ve done is try to move the process forward.” The campaign had argued in its motion to strike that the court’s requirement that it post campaign representatives at all the counties’ election boards and at 13 courtrooms across the state created “extremely burdensome and onerous conditions” that violated Nader’s right to due process and other constitutional guarantees. The campaign doesn’t have the resources — the lawyers or the money — to commit to such a task on such short notice, Stretton explained Thursday. But Colins contended that his court has allowed for the admission of four out-of-state lawyers to represent the campaign. Also, Thursday morning five other lawyers “appeared in Allegheny County requesting that they be allowed to represent Mr. Nader,” Colins wrote. Two of those Pittsburgh attorneys ended up putting their names on the docket as representing the campaign. “Therefore, there are presently more attorneys representing Mr. Nader than there are commissioned judges of the Commonwealth Court sitting Monday,” Colins wrote in In re: Nomination Paper of Ralph Nader. “No doubt this number will increase exponentially as this modern-day equivalent of the War of Roses drags on.” During the same period, Colins observed, “while professing not to have the assets to review these signatures, Mr. Stretton has found the time to grant interviews to a substantial portion of the existing media outlets in North America.” Stretton said he didn’t know who the lawyers named in the opinion were. “I talked to the Nader people last night, and they told me they had three or four lawyers to cover the whole state,” he said. Kevin Zeese, a campaign spokesman, suggested that Colins’ decision was a partisan one meant to favor the Democratic Party. Party consultants and legal experts say the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., stands to lose crucial support in this swing state if Nader and his running mate, Peter Miguel Camejo, are on the ballot Nov. 2. “The partisanship of our courts is really distressing,” Zeese said. Reached by phone in his chambers last evening, Colins said Zeese’s comment was a “malicious and outrageous accusation.” “There is absolutely no basis and no foundation for that,” Colins said. “Ask him for me why they don’t want to have a hearing. That would solve their lawyer problem.” In the meantime, Zeese said Stretton had “dropped out” of representing Nader in the ballot battle. Stretton and the campaign had “a difference of opinion,” Zeese said. “We didn’t feel like paying him anymore,” he said. Stretton has filed a motion with the Commonwealth Court to withdraw as the campaign’s counsel. It says the campaign no longer has the funds to continue to pay his “extremely low fee.” “Present counsel asks that he be removed as counsel because he cannot financially afford to continue without pay and because there are some disagreements,” the motion states. According to court documents, Stretton admitted during oral argument that a review of the Philadelphia registration records — and only 1,371 signatures — showed that more than half of those petitioners weren’t properly registered to vote. The Commonwealth Court also rejected Stretton’s argument that it had shifted the burden of proving the validity of the signatures to the campaign. “It will be the burden of the objectors, and solely the burden of the objectors to demonstrate that the nomination petitions do not contain these required signatures,” Colins wrote. The judge added that the “entire resources” of the court have been mobilized to timely adjudicate the issues before it. Yesterday, the court issued an order specifying where and when the evidentiary hearings will be held. The nine commissioned Commonwealth Court judges and four senior judges will preside over hearings held in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Doylestown, Erie and Greensburg starting Monday. Attorneys filed a formal “objection” in Commonwealth Court in August to the petitions the campaign turned over to the state, alleging that about 85 percent of the signatures were defective or fraudulently obtained. The Commonwealth Court ruled later in the month that Nader’s name should not be printed on the ballot because he violated the “sore loser” provision of Pennsylvania’s election code by filing as an independent candidate here despite having accepted the Reform Party’s nomination in Michigan. The Nader campaign appealed. In the one-page order in In re: Nomination Paper of Ralph Nader, the Supreme Court Monday remanded the case to the Commonwealth Court for the expedited hearings. It has not yet published an opinion explaining the ruling. Asher Hawkins contributed to this story.

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