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A Political Story

This story is from last fall's election, and more about me than about anything else, I suppose.

In November we Pennsylvanians elected a new Supreme Court justice. There were two candidates: Judge Max Baer (D) and Judge Joan Orie Melvin (R). As usual, one of the first things I checked was the Pennsylvania Bar Association's ratings. Both were “Highly Recommended” (the PBA's highest rating). Also as usual, I had a great deal of difficulty finding out much about this particular election and these two candidates.

One day I heard a political ad on the radio that pointed out that Judge Baer had a record of allowing a foster child to remain with a man convicted of incest. It seemed absurd, but I doubted that it could be completely fantastic. I decided to find out what I could on the Web. Indeed I found a number of newspaper articles and some opinion pieces.

According to the 17 December 2003 Eyes on Justice newsletter of the Justice at Stake Campaign (in the article Pennsylvania's Supreme Court Race: A Sign of Worse to Come?):

The Supreme Court race even featured last-minute anonymous calls, a staple of hardball politics. A recording told voters about a case where it claimed that Judge Baer kept a girl in the home of a foster father convicted of incest and sodomy.

Since I heard it on the radio, it wasn't always done anonymously. But this quote captures the feeling of the ad.

According to this article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, both judges dealt with issues of their handling of sexual abuse cases. Baer was attacked

..for letting a 5-year-old girl remain in the home of a foster father who, 38 years earlier, had been convicted of incest and sodomy and impregnated his 13-year-old daughter. County officials sought in 1997 to have the girl removed after learning the 74-year-old foster father had lied about his criminal record.

Baer in 1998 upheld another judge's decision to leave the girl in the home, and said recently that factors in his decision were the man's age, his clean criminal record in the intervening years, and that the girl was "flourishing" in her new home.

Melvin, OTOH, had:

... ruled that a legal technicality prevented a baby sitter who was charged with sexually abusing two young girls, ages 5 and 7, from facing charges.

Her interpretation was later overturned by a 5-1 vote by the state Supreme Court.

As an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge in 1993, Melvin barred the district attorney from prosecuting Harold Gerstner for abusing the two girls, who are sisters, because he was "merely a baby sitter" and so did not meet the legal standard of "exercising control" over them....

Both Supreme and Superior court rulings criticized Melvin for misinterpreting key language in the law and incorrectly limiting the state's power to punish child sex abusers.

The information I found convinced me to vote for Judge Baer. As I e-mailed to Melvin's campaign, without this indirect guidance from them, I'm not sure I would have made the right choice.

BTW, Baer won, cutting the Republican majority on the court from 5-2 to 4-3.

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