Friday, September 28, 2007

Joe Owens: Good Editor, Lousy Gadfly

Ordinarily, Joseph P. Owens is the hotshot editor in chief of The Express Times, where he routinely converts my very intelligent letters to the editor into paper airplanes.

But guess what?


When Owens returns home from a hard day at work and notices no street lights in his neighborhood, he turns into an amateur gad fly. This summer, he attempted to grill Upper Nazareth Township supervisors, but they left him in the dark. Having no gadfly training, Joe blew it. He forgot a bullhorn and interrupted no one, even though he knows those cat calls really throw elected officials off. He never even tried to get himself forcibly ejected. He circulated no petitions, and failed to form a grass roots group like UNSAFE (Upper Nazareth streetlights are for everyone). He never bothered to wail that supervisors are conducting secret meetings with Nazareth Borough Council or something.

Billy Givens, of course, is the holy terror of local government. He's been thrown out of more public meetings than most of you will ever attend. Even when he sits meekly, you know he's just waiting for the right moment to erupt. Before the Iraq war, during a candlelight vigil, this snarling septuagenarian stepped out into the middle of traffic in downtown Easton with his bullhorn, ready to roll around in the gutter with some musclebound guy who looked very much like a professional wrestler. I was able to talk the guy out of taking a swing, but it cost me. I had to date him. On the bright side, I now get my wrestling tickets free.

Sadly, Joe Owens never really took the time to study Billy's guerrilla politics. So as a gadfly, Joe stinks. To make matters worse, he had to publish a letter to the editor from UNaz Super Joe Emrick, chiding him for his sorry performance.

But Joe is not taking this lying down. No sirree.

Last week, when I told you about Upper Nazareth's first ever web site, he tried to pop on this blog with some pithy shot. But because he's such a lousy gadfly, he couldn't even remember the password.

Here's what he tried to say.

Bernie,
Now that this Web project is over, do you think the citizens in my darkened neighborhood may now get repairs done in the streetlights that have been out for nearly two years?
Nah ... didn't think so.
JPO


Joe, I'm sending Billy to see you, and he won't take No for an answer. Prepare to be enlightened!

Dean Browning Proposes Affordable Housing Solution for Lehigh County

Although the mainstream media failed to send a reporter to cover Wednesday evening's Lehigh County Commissioners' meeting, Dean Browning was there. He's attended most of them over the past two years, gaining valuable insight into the inner workings of Lehigh County government. This Lehigh County commissioner candidate recently proposed that Cunningham should consider a tax cut because the county will have a $20 million surplus. And at Wednesday evening's meeting, he proposed another idea directed at affordable housing.

Called an "Empowerment Solution," Browning's idea is focused on individual private sector investment rather than government or non-profit directed efforts.

"Relying solely on government, non-profit organizations and large-scale developers to address our affordable housing needs is the wrong approach," said Browning. "We need to empower individual entrepreneurs and encourage their involvement. I am confident that they can do better work and at a more cost effective price than government can."

Lehigh County's Affordable Housing Fund balance in 2008 is $1.4 million. A recent ordinance allows up to 15% to be used annually on administrative costs, with another 20% for non-profits. Browning said this approach, by itself, ignores entrepreneurs and will lead to more situations like the one recently reported in The Morning Call where $140,000 was spent to renovate a home that was then sold for $70,000.

"Home ownership is the gold standard of success in America, and I want to see everyone have the opportunity to accomplish that dream," said Browning. "Lehigh County and Allentown in particular, needs to renovate its housing stock and attract homeowners. We can use individual entrepreneurs to do this one house at a time".

Browning’s plan calls for 20% of the money in the County’s Affordable Housing Fund to be set aside for the "One House At A Time" initiative with 50% of that earmarked for Allentown.

This proposal applies to homes under $100,000, and provides rebates of up to $5,000 per home for transfer taxes, real estate taxes and title insurance. "We must improve our housing stock and increase homeownership, especially in Allentown," said Browning. He told me that cities like Allentown did not deteriorate overnight, but one house at a time. He proposes to fix the problem, one house at a time.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

FEC Thows Penalty Flag at Bennett's Former Employer

Charlie Dent must have been a very good boy this year. Sam Bennett keeps giving him Christmas presents. Get a load of this press release from the NRCC. If this is what they can make out of her involvement with Americans Coming Together, imagine what's going to happen when they get their hands on the records over at Properties of Merit. She's going down, and my biggest fear is that the tidal wive against her will sweep a few good Dems away, too.


Washington—Early in the election cycle, announced candidate for the 15th Congressional District of Pennsylvania Siobhan Bennett has already shown her flaws. First, she filed an outrageously erroneous personal disclosure form, and then she became the center of attention of a scandal involving the non-profit for which she is currently employed. Now, her former employer, Americans Coming Together (ACT), has been hit with a massive fine by the Federal Election Commission for their activities during the 2003-2004 election cycle.

Siobhan Bennett has some real questions to answer about her involvement with ACT and her series of lapses in judgment.

Here are the facts surrounding Siobhan Bennett’s involvement with ACT:

FACT: “The Federal Election Commission announced Wednesday that it had imposed a $775,000 fine on America Coming Together (ACT), a Democratic-allied 527 group that played a major role in the 2004 presidential election.”

FACT: ACT was fined for blatantly ignoring Federal Election Commission contribution guidelines. Bankrolled by a billionaire while pretending to be for the average Joe, America Coming Together acted like it was above the law.

“ACT, which received a significant amount of its funding from billionaire George Soros, paid for much of the Democrats’ voter registration and voter mobilization activities in battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida during the 2004 race…” (The Hill 8/29/2007)
FACT: The FEC found that ACT illegally spent over $100 million to influence the 2004 election. (The Hill 8/29/2007)

FACT: Siobhan Bennett served as the Lehigh Valley Regional Field Director for the group America Coming Together during the 2004 Election Cycle. (Morning Call Newspaper 7/11/2004)

FACT: ACT, as a political nonprofit, is not allowed to actively endorse a candidate. But its state communications director, Rebecca Kirszner calls it a “left-leaning grassroots organization.” Its Web site says one of the national group's goals is to defeat Bush “and his Republican allies” in the fall. (Morning Call Newspaper 7/11/2004)

FACT: The local press also had no misconceptions about ACT’s behavior as directed by Siobhan Bennett
.“Since then she [Siobhan Bennett] . . . served last year as the field director of the Lehigh Valley chapter of America Coming Together, a political organization that supports Democrats.” (Morning Call 1/28/2005)
Certainly the ACT office that Bennett managed sounds like it was overtly political, in violation of its non-profit status.

Siobhan has some questions to answer regarding her employment and work with this “non-profit” organization:

QUESTION: Does Siobhan Bennett feel any guilt having worked for such an obviously illegal and improper entity – America Coming Together?

QUESTION: Did Bennett coordinate improperly in any way with the Kerry campaign, the Joe Driscoll for Congress campaign or any local Democrat committee in contravention of her group’s supposed non-profit status?

QUESTION: On her website, Siobhan writes:

“We have all been disappointed and appalled by continuing reports of corruption in Congress and the Administration. The most insidious effect of widespread corruption is the idea that ‘everybody in Washington does it.’”
“In Congress, I promise to conduct the people’s business fairly, openly and for all my constituents, and not for the benefit of special interests.”

(website)
Why would the voters of the 15th District ever believe any statement Siobhan Bennett makes regarding ethics, given her employment with ACT and her series of lapses in judgment?

MSM is MIA at Lehigh County Comissioners' Meeting

At last Thursday's Northampton County council meeting, there was no shortage of media coverage. Sarah Cassi (The Express Times) and Joe Nixon (The Morning Call), two very seasoned reporters, were there, following every word. The Bethlehem Press, a weekly, sent a freelancer. Even a fellow blogger, Julian Stolz, dropped in on the fun.

If county councilpersons get the feeling they're under a microscope, it's because they are. This media coverage actually promotes accountable and transparent government.

But how about Lehigh County? Did you know there was a commissioners' meeting last night? Five different pieces of legislation and two appointments were on the agenda. But you won't be reading about it in any of the papers. The press sent no one to cover a regularly scheduled meeting of the Lehigh Valley's largest local government.

It is precisely this kind of environment, where no one is watching, that makes bad government possible. But I'll bet Lehigh County officials love it.

Catherine Baker Knoll to Crash Bennett Fundraiser

What would a week be without a Sam Bennett update?

Keystone Politics tells us she's now making the rounds in the beltway, trying desperately to grab some dough. Crooks and Liars, a beltway blog, tried to puff her candidacy. But even there, a buzz saw of complaints from local Dems followed a post telling us all about Sammy's favorite song.

Don't worry, Sammy hasn't forgotten about the little people. BethlehemDem tells us she's having a two hour fundraiser on Sunday at Jeanette Eichenwald's house. For just $1,000, you can be a host! Her special guest? Catherine Baker Knoll! Knoll is planning on crashing a nearby funeral anyway. Apparently, she has new business cards. Maybe she'll take Sammy with her.

Before Bennett announced her campaign, Congressman Charlie Dent was widely viewed as vulnerable. But now, thanks to a six month comedy of errors, CQ rates Charlie's seat as "Republican favored."

Nice Guy Stoffa Finishes First: New IT Bid Saves County $1.8 Million

"Nice guys finish last."

That's how councilperson Ann McHale exploded when told that the Stoffa administration was seeking council's input on whether to reject some high bids for county services. Stoffa thought we could do better. McHale was one of those who didn't want to be bothered.

Let me tell you the story.

When Northampton County first bid its information technology contract, three computer companies responded. Technical defects led to two rejections, leaving the county with only one bid. Affiliated Computer Services, the county's current provider, was actually the high bidder, at a little over $10 million. It was also the low bidder because it was the only company that could be legally considered.

Stoffa was unable legally to negotiate directly with ACS for a lower bid. So the county had two choices - award a new IT contract to ACS for $10 million, or reject all bids and start over. Our Administrative Code allows the county to reject bids when "it is in the best interest of the County." All three bidders had agreed to submit new bids, and the general feeling was that new bids would come in a little lower.

Amazingly, when county council was asked to reject, it refused. Personally, I think that small-minded group tried to stick it to the county's taxpayers for two reasons. First, one of the rejected bidders is a major contributor to Republicans, and council saw an opportunity to pull a "pay to play" in reverse. Second, they wanted to embarrass County Exec John Stoffa, who refuses to play their political games. Whatever their reasoning, it was certainly bad government.

This unbridled hubris continued. Council brazenly refused to accept their own lawyer's advice, when he told them they lack supervisory authority over the bidding process. It might "set a precedent." Ann McHale, Charles Dertinger, Lamont McClure, Diane Neiper and Tony Branco just couldn't bring themselves to admit they had made a mistake. The matter was instead referred to Lamont McClure's law and order committee, where he claims to have had a "lot of success in dealing with tough problems." The matter has languished there since July 12 with no discussion.

Stoffa ended up rejecting the bids on his own and sought new proposals. "They [council] can do what they want to do. I answer to the taxpayers, ultimately."

Thanks to Sarah Cassi at The Express Times, we know the new bids are in. The county wants to award its IT contract to ACS, but this time the bid is $8.2 million. That will save the county, and its taxpayers, $1.8 million over the bid that council tried to shove down our throats.

Looks like nice guys do finish first after all.

And for once, so does the taxpayer.
Update: Although council clearly blew this one, and for all the wrong reasons, Stoffa refused to rub their faces in it. But Ann McHale, in remarks to The Mornings Call's Joe Nixon, snorts, "I don't think the process was very professional." I agree, Ann. Council, and you especially, acted very unprofessionally.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Where's the Highest Crime Rate - Allentown, Bethlehem or Easton?

Last Saturday's Bill White column, "Survivorman Finally Meets His Match," suggests Allentown is a pretty rough place. Survivorman is inserted into center city Allentown, where he's shot at, bitten by a pit bull, and asked to present identity papers by city councilman Lou Hershman. After barely escaping with his life, Survivorman is told he needs to pick a safer urban environment.

"Like what?"

"How about Baghdad?"


Allentonians are a divided group. On one side, there's Team Hilliard, which has challenged nearly every initiative, often in court. On the other side are those who believe Pawlowski can do no wrong. I suspect both sides are right and wrong. It's been a great debate.

But there's a third group that bothers the hell out of me. These are the elitists who insist we look at their city through rose colored glasses. The most extreme of these actually suggested we rename the Lehigh Valley the "Valley of Allentown." At the same time, those who feed the homeless are incredibly snarked as "dogooders" who "often do harm to society (especially our cities)." After being nauseated by those incredibly pompous remarks, Bill's column was a breath of fresh air.

But is Bill being too negative about the Queen City? Is Bethlehem or Easton just as bad as Allentown? Let's look at the cold hard facts.

If you compare Allentown to Bethlehem and Easton, the Lehigh Valley's two other cities, Allentown has the highest crime rate. That's just the way it is. Bethlehem's crime rate is below the national average in nearly every category, unlike Allentown.



In Easton, it's much closer, but Allentown still gets the edge.

So in the Valley of Allentown, the Queen City is our smelly armpit, like it or not. But that doesn't make Allentown a cesspool. Nearby Reading, in Berks County, actually makes Allentown look like paradise.

Allentown is actually amazingly similar to slightly larger Hartford, Connecticut, in crime statistics. Both cities are about the same distance from New York City.


Allentown is definitely the most crime-ridden city in the Lehigh Valley. But if you compare it with other similar cities, its crime problem is nothing unusual.

Did Superior Court Judge Stevens Cross the Line?

When I told you about Superior Court Judge Corry Stevens on Monday, I mentioned that he is unafraid to voice opinions, even on hot-button, political issues. That certainly makes him different from most judges. He does have one powerful ally, Supreme Court Justice Max Baer. "I think you have a right to know what I feel, what I believe in, who I am."

Yesterday, Stevens joined forced with other foes of illegal immigration, including our very own John Morganelli. They want new state laws or something. Needless to say, lots of folks are outraged that a judge would dare state his views.



Capitol Ideas' John Micek tells us Stevens may have gone too far. "Once legal ethicists and others picked their jaws up off the floor, they said Stevens, 60, probably went sailing over the line with his public comments."

But did he?

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a judicial candidate has a first amendment right to speak out on issues that might come before the court. Pennsylvania thereafter relaxed judicial canons, allowing candidates to “announce” views on disputed legal or political issues. It still prohibits statements that “commit or appear to commit the candidate with respect to cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court.”

Even in this watered down version, this canon has been enjoined by a federal district court. It is unenforceable.

That's why Stevens can speak, and we are the beneficiaries. Tim Potts at Democracy Rising has stated this injunction "means [judges] will be able to respond to a lot more issues than in the past. As long as we're going to have elections, they ought to be meaningful. Public confidence in the courts is [already] abysmally low."

Philadelphia lawyer Robert Nix, who just happens to chair the state Republican Hispanic Coalition, is among those outraged, and he intends to file a complaint with the Judicial Conduct Board.

Good luck with that one, Bob.

Now don't get me wrong, I get queasy when I hear undocumented workers scapegoated as the cause of all our problems. I disagree completely with both Stevens and Morganelli. But I think it's important that voters know who they're voting for, and I give Stevens credit for opening up.

Update: Stevens Defends Capitol Appearance. - In today's Hazelton Standard Speaker, Judge Stevens defends his appearance at a capitol press conference on Monday. Here's his explanation.

Kindly note I would like to clarify my visit to the Capitol on Monday, which was the result of an invitation to a press conference concerning the release to the public of a report on crimes committed and allegedly committed by people in the country illegally.

My comments were confined to a federal constitutional issue: federalism. In response to citizen complaints about the federal policy of non-enforcement of immigration laws, I suggested a possible solution would be to amend the federal immigration law to allow local governments to enforce the law.

Specifically, I spoke about providing due process rights in that county courts would be empowered, but not required, to hold deportation hearings. Thus, local communities which have serious problems with illegal immigration would have the tools to enforce laws that are already on the books.

Some present have chosen to characterize the event as some type of “rally” and have criticized me for being there.

Under current law, judges are permitted write, lecture, speak, even attend legislative hearings on just about any subject. I explained the rules and my reason for being present, and confined my remarks to the issue of sharing enforcement powers. As a former legislator, district attorney and trial judge, I was careful not to discuss anything involving the Pennsylvania legislature or executive branch.

Interestingly, even if the event were a “rally”, I would still have been able to attend and speak.

For example, all judges running for the open seats and the retention seats have appeared at “partisan” functions, namely the Democrat and Republican State Committee meetings.

And at those meetings speakers occasionally criticize the other political party, that’s part of our governmental process. By the judges being present, or even sharing the dais with those speakers, it doesn’t mean the judges are supporting or endorsing what is said. There are no prohibitions from those judges being present at the political party gatherings or even from speaking at those gatherings, in a year when those judges are up for election.

I can certainly understand that there is room for disagreement on the merits of what I said, the issue of federalism and allowing local governments more enforcement powers.

What concerns me is that there is the appearance now, from the news reports, that I had no right to discuss a federal constitutional issue not in any way before my court. I have always been sensitive to the need for judges to be fair and impartial in fact and in perception and will remain so.

Thank you,

Correale Stevens
Judge, Superior Court of PA

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Campaign Sign Time Again!


Just as the arrival of robins tell us it's spring, the first campaign sign signals the end of summer. A dark, dreary winter is just a few weeks away. I spotted my first sign yesterday, along Route 248 near its intersection with Route 33. It was still there a day later.

Easton State Theatre Fundraiser on Saturday

From Easton's State Theatre: The State Theatre could potentially raise $15,000 in much needed funds. But we need your help! Attend this Saturday's More Than Money with Gene Dickison live broadcast and bring all your friends!

The More Than Money radio show with Gene Dickison will be broadcasting live, taking your very own financial questions, to benefit the non-profit State Theatre on Saturday, September 29th!

In addition, The More Than Money Expo runs 8:30 AM - Noon, with the radio show going live at 9 AM.

WAEB's own Bobby "Gunther" Walsh will also be broadcasting live from 9-11am. Tickets are FREE, but may be limited. Please contact Kristie Worman at 610-868-9000 x122 or kworman@valleynationalgroup.com to reserve your tickets. Or stop by the State Theatre Box Office Window at 453 Northampton Street to pick up your tickets.

Each person who joins us for the live broadcast will help the non-profit State Theatre in acquiring $10 (in other words - "More than Money" will donate ten dollars for every person in the audience!!!) The More Than Money radio show with Gene Dickison can be heard live every Saturday from 9 AM - 11 AM on WAEB AM 790.

See You at the Theatre!

Pickles on a Stick Lose an Election!

Scott Petri (R) was in the battle of his life with Carl Cherkin (D). Cherkin was a FOX-29 sportscaster and had great name ID.

Everybody loves Fox! Especially Dems.

At a parade in early September, Cherkin was on a float with Rendell, who was running for Gov the first time. The Petri camp was doomed.

But then, inexplicably, the Cherkin folks began passing out pickles on a stick. They were wearing signs and chanting “Gherkins for Cherkin”. Petri won 55-45.

Pickles on a stick have not been used in politics since that fateful day.

How about petri dishes?

One Thing Worse Than Throwing Out All Pa. Appellate Judges: Retaining Them

Why the hell am I paying so much attention to judicial races, including the retention races? Two reasons. I'm trying my best to fill an information gap. Second, most judges view their retention as some form of divine right, and that has resulted in an isolated and arrogant judiciary.

PaCleanSweep has taken the easy road. At first, it recommended that voters reject every judge up for retention. It has recently given the Superior Court's Orie Melvin a reprieve from an automatic NO vote because she "has done everything in her power to personally reject the judicial swindle."

Over at Keystone Politics, my friend Blackrobe is going nuts at the prospect of a thinning of the judicial ranks. He directs our attention to an interesting column by Hank Grezlak at The Legal Intelligencer, billed as the oldest law journal in the United States. "I have only one question for the folks at PACleanSweep, who have advocated throwing out all the judges up for retention: Are you guys nuts, or just plain stupid?"

Blackrobe and Grezlak are right. As Grezlak pithily observes, "Movements that embrace absolutism are just forces of tyranny waiting to happen."

Speaking of absolutism, I've been poring over the pages of a magazine you won't find at the local newsstand. It's called The Pennsylvania Lawyer, and has a feature story entitled, "Judicial Election Preview." Don't bother looking for it because it's a total waste of time. This puff piece from the Pa Bar loves everybody. Everyone who seeks retention is entitled. All candidates are recommended.

The Supreme Court's Justice Saylor, in his judicial questionnaire, tries to explain away his $750 fine for attempting to sneak a pocket knife onto a plane after being specifically told this was impermissible. "I paid the civil penalty of $750 to conclude the matter," he huffs. He attempts to minimize conduct that probably would have resulted in more serious charges if you or I were involved.

The Superior Court's Orie Melvin attempts to minimize her five year slapsuits, carried on in two states, against some of her critics, with a mere five words. And she humbly describes herself like this. "I have served as a judge for over 20 years with distinction. . . . I have a strong record of professional excellence. My opinions reveal extensive legal knowledge in various areas of the law and I have excellent writing and decision making capabilities." Legal knowledge in various areas of the law? That's excellent writing?

Despite the judicial arrogance demonstrated in both questionnaires, syncophants at the Pa. Bar recommend their retention, and have even set up a propaganda site. But I agree with Grezlak. "Movements that embrace absolutism are just forces of tyranny waiting to happen."

Monday, September 24, 2007

What Has Happened to Sam Bennett's Endorsement Page?

Way back in July, Congressional wannabe Sam Bennett's website listed an entire page of local Democrats who officially endorse her. I spoke to a number of them in early August, and they were pretty shocked. One told me, "I've said nothing publicly." Another said that Bennett had told him she was running, and he had simply wished her luck.

If you go to her webpage now, that list of endorsements has simply vanished.

Poof!

Fortunately, I still have a link in case she lost hers.

Retain the Superior Court's Correale Stevens, an Accessible Workhorse

Correale F. Stevens is the last of three judges seeking retention on the state superior court. I'll be supporting his bid. Most judges, once they don those black robes, tend to become aloof. But Stevens, in vast contrast to the norm, has made an effort to remain accessible to those he serves. His opinions are slightly right of center, but they also support individual liberties and an independent press.

Who is Corry Stevens?

Most appellate judges come from Philly or the Pittsburgh area, and simply lack the perspective that can be provided by someone outside their big city arenas. But Judge Stevens is a product of the coal regions, a "cracker." He lives in nearby Luzerne County.

Judge Stevens is a graduate of Dickinson School of Law, where he was a member of law review. After that, he served four terms as a state representative. That might explain his responsiveness. I sent him an email with a question about his teaching experience, and he replied the very next day with a very nice letter. That's very unusual from a sitting appellate judge. You usually have to jump through all kinds of hoops just to get an audience with a county judge's butler, but this superior court judge was both responsive and friendly.

After his stint as a Republican state rep, Stevens was elected Luzerne County DA in 1987. When his term was complete, he was elected county judge, and won his seat on the superior court in 1997.

What's highly unusually about Stevens is his attempt at outreach. In addition to teaching one evening every week at Penn State's Hazelton campus, he volunteers to speak at elementary and high schools about the judicial system. He has even held a town meeting in a local auditorium to hear questions and concerns about the courts in general. And his name is all over google as a judge in the statewide mock trial program, and that's strictly as a volunteer.

In his email, Stevens explains his efforts at bringing the courts closer to the people. "It is good for elected officials to be active in the community to listen to concerns of people, and to share thoughts on the workings of our government and to encourage students to learn about their government."

A Judge Unafraid to Speak Out

Let's be honest. Most judges duck issues, hiding behind their black robes. But Stevens is unafraid to address the most controversial of political issues, including our undocumented workforce. Although I disagree completely with his position, I am impressed that he thinks enough of the voters to be honest with them. As Max Baer said when he ran for the state's high court, "I think you have a right to know what I feel, what I believe in, who I am."

Stevens a Superior Court Workhorse

Judge Stevens has 354 published online opinions, and that's 50% more than the combined total of the two other superior court judges seeking retention - Orie Melvin and Musmanno. Only 39 of these are concurring or dissenting opinions, evidence that Stevens is a consensus builder.

His opinions reflect a judge who is prosecution-oriented, but who respects important constitutional rights.

He has been consistently tough on sex offenders. This includes a decision upholding a conviction for possession of child pornography. Although a defendant had merely viewed this type of porn on his computer, that was sufficient to uphold a criminal conviction for possession. "[Defendant's] actions of operating the computer mouse, locating the Web sites, opening the sites, displaying the images on his computer screen, and then closing the sites were affirmative steps and corroborated his interest and intent to exercise influence over, and, thereby, control over the child pornography."

He has also ruled that a fourteen year old child who shot at someone near innocent bystanders, can be tried as an adult. And when Pier 34 collapsed in Philly, causing three deaths and injuring forty-three people, Stevens dissented from a ruling that disallowed a felony prosecution. The supreme court eventually agreed with him.

Although tough on crime, Stevens has supported individual liberties.

In a defamation case by a police officer against a Lancaster newspaper that had published a letter to the editor, Stevens ruled that actual malice had to be established. His ruling was recently reversed, which is bound to have a chilling impact on free and open discussion.

Although he ruled against a gay couple's right to adopt, he made clear his decision is demanded by the letter of the law, not the sexual orientation of the couples seeking adoption rights. He just feels that it is up to the legislature, not the judiciary, to expand existing law.

Conclusion

While Judge Musmanno may be the superior court's long ball hitter, Stevens is their utility player. Day in and day out, he has been a workhorse. Not the usual judicial elitist, he is responsive to the people, has conducted town halls, speaks out on issues and even answers email. His decisions are conservative, but well-reasoned. I will vote to retain Stevens.

A Pickle on a Stick?

On Sunday, Bangor's pee wee football players hosted Allentown's east side youth center. At their refreshment stand, Bangor offers a very unusual snack - their famous pickle on a stick. Allentown's east enders gobbled them down. I even ate the stick!

Do you notice any other unusual snacks offered at local sporting events?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Operation Troop Aid Car Wash This Sunday in South Allentown

It's become an American tradition. Nearly every weekend, teen aged girls with signs risk their lives near some shopping center or strip mall, trying to wave down traffic for a car wash fundraiser. It's usually to benefit some youth activity like cheer leading or volleyball.

Tomorrow, four Dieruff High School students have something different in mind. Here's what they say.

"We are Operation Troop Aid! and are raising money to send care packages to the U.S. troops who are stationed over seas. We are doing this as a graduation project for Dieruff High School and we would like to ask you to support us by coming to the car wash we are having and keeping in mind what our soldiers go through everyday. Being able to help make their lives a little easier is a privilege to us and it would be very satisfying to be able to send a good amount of supplies to them. Thank you for your support."

When: Sunday, September 23

Where: Auto Zone, 1871 S. 5th St. on the south side of Allentown

Who: Operation Troop Aid!

How Much: cars - $5.00, trucks & SUVs - $8.00

The team: Chelsea Farling, Ashlie Boyer, Kelsey Gallagher & Keelia Mailander

Friday, September 21, 2007

Lamont McClure: Bloodhound of the Law

Remember Nicole Fogel?

She's the former clerk who embezzled $120,000 from county coffers. She's paid back every cent, surrendered her county pension and was sentenced to a minimum of nine months in an overcrowded jail. After serving a third of that sentence, she'd like to spend the remainder under house arrest. She is a single mother with a young son, and he suffers for her sins. Now the District Attorney's office opposes this request. At a hearing last week, an assistant DA exclaimed, "House arrest is a joke. What she did was not a joke."

At a Northampton County council meeting two weeks ago, Lamont McClure wanted to know whether the county opposes Fogel's request for house arrest. "We're the victim."

McClure's wife is an assistant DA and his campaign is heavily funded by contributions from that office. If he felt that strongly about it, he could ask his wife for the time and date of the hearing so he could march in and demand a judge to give Fogel twenty years in the electric chair.

But he didn't do that. Instead, he demanded last night that the county explain why it failed to take a position in that hearing. County exec Stoffa had decided "to defer to the wisdom of the court," and McClure insisted on knowing why.

"It's not my call," Stoffa laconically replied. And Stoffa's absolutely right. Just as judges make bad county executives, county executives make bad judges.

Without knowing any facts about Nicole Fogel, McClure wants to slam her around a bit so that he looks tough on crime. After all, he's got an election to win and a DA campaign donor to please.

In the primary. McClure demonstrated his McMud-like tendencies when he resurrected the memory of his opponent's deceased brother. Now he's at it again. This time, he's kicking an ex county worker while she's down. This mean-spirited councilman apparently thinks he can tell judges what sentences they may impose.

I wonder if he carries a little badge.
Update: In a one sentence order, Judge Emil Giordano has denied Fogel's request for house arrest. He did so without interference from the Lamont McClure for County Council campaign.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Northampton County Picks Up an Old Bar!

You know, Norco Dem boss Joe Long is right.

Too many illegitimate press members are running around. At last night's Northampton County council meeting, newshawks Sarah Cassi of The Express Times and Joe Nixon of The Morning Call, were ready, pens in hand. Even The Bethlehem Press, a weekly, is now regularly sending a freelancer.

To make matters worse, fellow blogger Julian Stolz was somehow able to sneak into the meeting too. He's a Republican! And even though he was wearing a tie with all these goofy elephants, he slipped past the guards.

Bossman Long will definitely be upset to learn that five different media reps, including two goofy bloggers, were among the thirty who attended last night's county council meeting. He might have to issue another "cease and desist" special to county exec John Stoffa.

Last night's meeting included a procession of eight Easton citizens with something on their mind. Gangs? Drugs? Poverty? Floods? Nah. They're intent on saving Easton's 1753 Bachmann Publick House, Easton's oldest building, tavern and home to Northampton County's first courtroom. The Easton Heritage Alliance, which owns the building, has been unable to repay a $500,000 loan from the county. So last night, county council directed its General Purpose Authority to accept a deed in lieu of foreclosure.

Led by Phyllis Johnson, the Bachmann believers repeatedly implored council for time to come up with a business plan that allows the building's continued use as a living museum. Easton mayoral candidate Gary Bertsch was one of these supplicants. "History is one way to turn a city around," he lectured council. Volunteer Tracy Hart worried that the county would somehow turn this historic building into a law office, and said Easton should be more like New Hope. Johnson waved a letter from Lafayette College president Daniel Weiss, in which he promises to be a "convenor of an initiative to prepare a business plan."

As person after person rose to speak, a forlorn Frank Flisser, the county council's clerk, was scribbling away, trying his best to keep up. Looking at Frank, one observer quietly asked, "What's he doing?"

"Writing a suicide note."

Councilman Ron Angle was unswayed by the throng. "For 1 1/2 years, we have waited. Now at the 12th hour, you come in with a business plan." He pointedly asked Johnson whether Lafayette had a check. "You need a big brother at this point, and you don't have one."

Actually, last night's decision to take back the deed has little bearing on any attempt to make a go of Bachmann. As Councilman Lamont McClure advised Johnson and her friends, "Why can't we just take back the deed and let you develop your plan?"

And that's exactly what will happen. The county is protecting its interest while Bachmann supporters develop a plan.

How about a massage parlor?

Upper Nazareth Township Has a Website!

Upper Nazareth Township Supervisor Joe Emrick has sent me an email about the township's first website, located at http://www.uppernazarethtownship.org/. It's a noble effort to make local government more transparent and accessible.

It kicked off at 6 PM last night. Emrick publicly thanks web designer Robin Schlegel, and committee members Steve Polles and Jeri Krondstadt for their hard work toward the completion of this project.

Here's part of what the township's press release tells us.

The site has more than fifteen pages of information and contains some of the following important features:

· The agendas and meeting minutes of the past year for both the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission.


· An extensive list of contact information for both emergency & non-emergency agencies.

· Links to a multitude of other municipal, educational and historical institutions, including the Nazareth School District and Nazareth Public Library.

· Several PDF files to download at home such as permit applications for increased convenience.

· A “New Resident” and “Frequently Asked Questions” page along with a page for Township news and upcoming events.

“The primary objective in creating our website is to make our local government as open and accessible to the public as we can. Second, it’s our goal to always attempt to meet the needs of our residents in an even more efficient and responsive manner and this website helps us do both,” Emrick said.

If there are any future questions, please contact the Upper Nazareth Township municipal building at (610) 759-5341 or e-mail us at untw@rcn.com.

Could a Republican Win in Bethlehem's City Controller Race?

BethlehemDem has an interesting report on the city contoller race between Republican Meg Holland (CPA/ABV, CVA, CIA) and Democrat David DiGiacinto (DEM).

The Home News: Watch Out for Those Black People!

In the past, I've been critical of The Morning Call's editorial policy against the use of racial identifiers. When it might help identify someone, whu not play the race card? Yet Last November, The Morning Call never told us the race of someone who punched out an Easton bus driver. And in June, it refused to describe the skin tone of a rapist, disguised as a cop. Plenty of other details were known about both criminals, including age, sex and clothing. Isn't race relevant when police are actively searching for someone and other physical characteristics are known?

Although I disagree with this practice, I do understand that the language of race can be dangerous, adding to existing subtle racism here in the Lehigh Valley. And the practice of another local paper demonstrates the danger of stereotyping.

The Home News is a weekly publication that covers the Northampton-Bath-Nazareth area. It's a neat little paper. I like quirky stories like the one about a 48" alligator captured in Hokendauqua Creek, or another about a Moore Township man who recently received an answer to a letter inside a balloon set aloft over twenty years ago.

But when it comes to racial identifiers, this paper has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In a recent account of Northampton Borough Council meeting, the paper reports the complaints of two police officers, one of whom was terminated for using excessive force in an encounter during community days. The paper just had to point out that the officer's dispute was with "a black youth." Just why is that relevant?

In another account about purses being stolen from a Nazareth area movie theatre, the paper tells us to "be vigilant of other persons acting suspiciously." And then it drops this little bomb. "Black women and men are alleged to have entered the purses and removed credit cards." So what Home News is really telling us is this - watch out for black people.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dean Browning Proposes Lower Taxes in Lehigh County

Have you ever noticed that Republicans have all the financial experts? It's a little scary, when you start thinking about it. Look at walking calculator Alan Greenspan. Does anyone understand anything he's said over the past ten years?

But there's a reason for this. Republicans are butt ugly. If you look at my profile picture, you'll see that we Democrats are stunningly handsome. It's a curse. So God took pity on Republicans and made them math whizzes.

Dean Browning, chief financial officer with a local private air charter company, is one of these bean counters. He's doing rather well for himself. But for reasons that elude me, he's developed a keen interest in Lehigh County government. He attends all board meetings and is running for commissioner.

He has spent the past few weeks poring over LC Exec Don Cunningham's proposed budget. This includes attending four separate budget hearings as a member of the public. I like Cunningham's budget. He proposes a new 911 center, work release enhancements, a regional approach to public safety, and an affordable housing plan for working class families.

But Browning has some suggestions that might improve on a good budget. He proposes a tax cut instead of collecting a huge surplus. And in his telephone conversation with me, he warns that growing county pensions are a "hidden danger."

Today he publicly announced a three point plan in a press conference. Below is his press release, describing his suggestions in a little more detail.

Allentown, September 19, 2007—County Commissioner candidate Dean Browning kicked off his review of the 2008 budget for Lehigh County today with a press conference at the Sheraton High Points. At the event he unveiled a 3-Point Plan for the Board of Commissioners to focus on Lehigh County’s future. The plan called for reducing property taxes, slowing the growth in county spending and refocusing government on its core activities.

"Lehigh County is a great place to live and work. I know; I’ve been here for almost thirty years. I’m running for County Commissioner to make sure it stays that way in the future," stated Browning, who said that the growth in county spending — up 42% in the last six years — must be slowed. "We can do better and to do that we have to focus on the future beyond just the next election cycle."

Browning’s Plan for Lehigh County’s Future

1. Return $20 Million in Surplus Funds to Taxpayers.

"Government should not be in the business of collecting more money from taxpayers than it needs to operate," said Browning. "I would return the surplus by reducing property taxes from 10.25 mills to 9.50 mills - It’s the taxpayer’s money – not the county’s. I would sustain that reduction by limiting the growth in future spending to the rate of inflation."

2. Reduce the Growth in County Spending to that of the Rate of Inflation.

"We want to make sure county employees are treated fairly," said Browning. "However, their compensation package - salary, benefits and pension - should be more in line with that of most private sector employees. To control costs in the future, we must start now to reform the county’s approach to compensation that is both outdated and unsustainable. As part of this process, I call for the repeal of the 2008 pay increase for the Board of Commissioners that was voted on by the current commissioners. If they are unwilling to do that then I pledge to not accept the increase and ask each candidate running for County Commissioner this year to join me in that pledge."

3. Refocus the County’s Priorities on its Core Activities.

"The focus of county government should be on basic taxpayer assigned functions such as bridge repair, criminal justice and land preservation. Spending $51 million on a baseball stadium while begrudging the money needed to fix structurally deficient bridges is a glaring example of the misplaced priorities," said Browning. "I call on the Board of Commissioners to refocus on the county’s core activities. Before acting to raise taxes on local businesses and to use the county’s borrowing capacity to do something like building a new ballpark for wealthy team owners; they need to make sure the County’s basic activities have been addressed - for example ensuring that our bridges are open and safe."

Browning, the Executive Vice-President and CFO of New World Aviation, Inc., said the Board of Commissioners sorely needs the capabilities and perspective of someone with private sector business experience to put county government on firm financial footing for the future.
I think his tax reduction suggestion is worth exploring, and he's right about pensions. But I'd rather be handsome.

Retain John Musmanno, The Superior Court's Long Ball Hitter

Yesterday, I told you I'll be voting against the retention of Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin. One of many reasons for this is that she ignored her responsibilities as a common pleas judge to run for a seat on the superior court. An investigative report by a team of eleven reporters at the Post-Gazette, revealed that her courtroom was "virtually shut down . . . for several weeks" while she "spent numerous weekdays out of town campaigning."

Melvin was a civil judge at that time, and the caseload was administered by then civil administrative judge John L. Musmanno. He was running for a seat on the superior court, too. But unlike Melvin, he spent little time travelling during the campaign, and attended to his judicial duties.

Who is John Musmanno?

PaProgressive tells us Musmanno "grew up in public housing in a family of modest means. His is another American success story, someone who made something of himself and now dedicates his life to serving others. He attended college because he won a caddie scholarship and worked his way through Washington and Jefferson College. He graduated Magna cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He went on to the Vanderbilt University School of Law where he earned his J.D. While there he was Assistant Editor of the Vanderbilt Law Review (a high honor)."

He was first elected as an Allegheny County judge in 1981. In 1995, he sought the Democratic nomination for the supreme court, but was defeated by Russell Nigro, who ultimately went on to win a seat in the general election. Ironically, Nigro became the first sitting justice to lose his retention bid last year, a fatality of voters indignant about the legislative and judicial paygrab.

Musmanno was elected to the superior court in 1997. If retained, he will be forced to retire in 2012, when he reaches mandatory retirement age.

Unlike Melvin or even Saylor, Musmanno's exrtrajudicial activities are low key. He doesn't try to sneak pocket knives onto a plane after being told he can't do so. He does not engage in five years worth of lawsuits, in two different states, over harmless anonymous comments posted on an Internet gossip site. I have spoken to some lawyers, who use words like "even" and "consistent" to describe this Pittsburgh jurist. PaProgressive, who has met with Musmanno, says this, "It's nice to speak with a Judge who doesn't think the world revolves around him, as I sometimes see on the local level." His self-effacing personality is evident in a video posted by Pennsylvania Democrats.

After reading several of his opinions, I have my own term for Musmanno - long ball hitter. He sits quietly in the superior court dugout until something really important is pitched at the court, and then he swings away with excellent opinions.

Musmanno is the Superior Court's Long Ball Hitter

I have reviewed Musmanno's eighty-nine online opinions. Seventeen of these are concurring or dissenting opinions. He appears to be the court's designated hitter - the judge who tackles the tougher cases.

1) A Case for King Solomon. - One of the more interesting of these cases involved an alienated couple arguing over who was entitled to their dead son's ashes. A judge, who must have been familiar with only half of the King Solomon tale, ordered the ashes to be divided and placed in two separate urns. Musmanno ruled that "the trial court abused its discretion in using its equitable powers to override the desires of one of the next of kin as to the division of Son's remains."

2) A trend that favors middle class consumers against corporate giants. - Musmanno's decisions demonstrate a keen understanding and appreciation of ordinary consumers who are often victimized by increasingly big businesses.

Cable giant Comcast was a defendant in a class action suit be subscribers forced to use remotes and cable box converters that were totally unnecessary. Its lawyers pointed to one of those fine print arbitration clauses in its contract with consumers. They even persuaded a Philadelphia court to condemn cable customers to the bottomless pit of arbitration. But not Musmanno. He quickly noted that these clauses are unenforceable when they are jammed down someone's throat in an adhesion contract.

He also ruled against H & R Block. Angry customers, who learned their "rapid refunds" were actually high interest loans, sued in a class action. A Philadelphia judge had decertified the class, and Musmanno easily navigated through complicated rules of appellate and civil procedure to determine that the trial court had acted improperly.

In a products liability case, Musmanno ruled that the implied warranty of merchantability extends not just to the person who bought the product, but to members of her family as well. In the particular case involved, a two year old boy snatched a lighter from his mother's purse, and started a fire that burned down a home and killed three people.

My favorite of these consumer cases is the Godiva chocolate case. A shopper at a local department store saw an open box of Godiva chocolates, and helped herself to a sample. "Well, one won't hurt me." A few minutes later, she came back and helped herself to a second.

That second sample hurt. She was seized by a department store narc, dragged off to a "loss prevention" office, handcuffed to a table, searched, presented with an admission form, and told to confess her heinous crime. She was handcuffed for nearly an hour until admitting, in writing, that she ate two pieces of chocolate she thought were free.

Here's how Musmanno reacted. "[The department store's] continued detention of [the shopper], in handcuffs, exceeds all bounds of decency and we express our outrage at such a procedure."

3) Musmanno and the Constitution. - In addition to his consumer cases, Musmanno has weighed important principles of double jeopardy and has balanced a jury's privacy rights against the media's need to know their names and addresses.

Conclusion

Musmanno is a judge. He served a full term as a trial judge before even thinking about an appellate court. When he did seek a seat on the superior court, he attended to his judicial duties first, unlike some of his colleagues. He has consistently tackled the Superior Court's more thorny legal questions, but his opinions demonstrate that he still understands what life without a black robe is like. I will vote to retain Musmanno.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lower Nazareth Township Citizens' Forum

Concerned that Lower Nazareth Township has virtually become a warehousing district, a grass roots blog is rising from the asphalt. Called the LNT Citizens Forum, this site will allow registered users to post their own blogs in the near future. This blog also has a sister site, with documents, schedules, ordinances and meeting minutes.

Controversial Skateboarding Charge Dismissed in Nazareth

Back in July, I told you about Nazareth's bad attitude towards skateboarders. Naturally this extended to local police. They cited at least one young man who dared skateboard on an unused basketball court located right next to the damn skatepark!

He was fined $157, and his board was confiscated as "evidence" for over a week. He had no idea that he was doing anything illegal because no signs are posted that prohibit skateboards in that area of the park, and the basketball court is right next to the frickin' skatepark.

This is pure harassment. In addition to the lack of notice, this skater was bothering no one. He even asked basketball players on the other court for permission before he began grinding. Police were told he had their permission, but that didn't matter.

At the time, I told you those charges should be taken from a basketball court to a real court because they would never stand up to scrutiny. Nazareth's finest, if they had any sense, would have dismissed the charges on their own motion.

But they refused, and when local attorney Gary Asteak heard the facts, he agreed to represent this young man.

At today's hearing, the case was quickly dismissed. Nazareth police had publicly argued we all have an affirmative obligation to familiarize ourselves with local park rules and regulations whenever we step foot inside a park. But attitudes change over time. And today, police "forgot" to produce a certified copy of the ordinance.

Asteak seized on this technicality, and the case was quickly blown out.

When I originally wrote about this incident, I was deeply concerned that police harassment would continue. But I was wrong. The skatepark has really changed skating patterns in the borough. And when goofy councilman Conrad Bowers arbitrarily decided to close the skatepark for a few hours this summer, it was actually police who spoke up for the kids. Acting police chief Alan Koch went toe to toe with Bowers, whose misguided decision to close the skatepark was quickly reversed.

I hope today's dismissal signals the end of Nazareth's bad skateboarding attitude. The young skateboarder who was cited won't be charged again anytime soon. He broke his ankle skateboarding.

At the skatepark.

Why Judge Joan Orie Melvin Should Not Be Retained on Pa.'s Superior Court

Yesterday, I told you about Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor, and why I'm voting against his retention. Six appellate jurists besides Saylor will be on the ballot on November 6. These are judges of the Superior and Commonwealth Court. Today's post focuses on one of these judges, Joan Orie Melvin. I'll be voting against her retention, too. The purpose of this post is to provide you with facts from which you can conclude, on your own, whether we can afford to keep a judge like her.

What is the Superior Court?

Often called the court of second guess, the superior court is where most appeals from a trial court are heard. They also approve wiretap requests. The vast majority of the 8,201 appeals filed last year, were from criminal convictions. Although there are fifteen jurists, they usually sit in three-judge panels. Because the supremes are so reluctant to hear appeals, the superior court is usually the last bastion of hope for those seeking justice.

The fifteen superior court judges, whose annual salary is $165,342, are initially elected for a ten year term. After that, judges are retained by a simple "yes" or "no" statewide vote. Mandatory retirement occurs at age 70. The president judge, whose yearly take is $170,442, is elected by fellow judges once every five years.

Joan Orie Melvin is a Politically Ambitious Woman

A Pittsburgh native, Melvin first managed to get herself appointed as a judge in 1990, filling a vacancy. At that time, she had only been practicing law nine years. The following year, as an incumbent, she was elected to a full term as a common pleas judge. But she never served that term. A mere seven years later, she was on the campaign warpath again, this time winning her current seat on the superior court.

During the time she spent traipsing across the state, picking up votes, she pretty much ignored her responsibilities as a common pleas judge. An investigative report by a team of eleven reporters at the Post-Gazette, cast a very public spotlight on a very unresponsive Melvin, a person who obviously considers her personal ambition more important than her work as a judge.

Melvin thumbed her nose at a six-week trial term because a pesky little jury trial might interfere with her quest to become an appellate judge. Her courtroom was "virtually shut down . . . for several weeks" while she "spent numerous weekdays out of town campaigning."

After stewing for a few years on this intermediate court, she decided to take a stab for a seat with the supremes in 2003. She and Democrat Max Baer engaged in a money war, spending an obscene $3.34 million over one seat on the state high court. This exceeds the total amount spent in all judicial races during the previous two years. Forty-three per cent of this money came from lawyers, a drastic increase from the ten percent total in the 2001 race.

Although the Code of Judicial Conduct clearly permits judicial candidates to speak out on issues, Melvin still refused to do so. Max Baer, who eventually beat her, said this during a televised debate. "I think you have a right to know what I feel, what I believe in, who I am." And he chastised Melvin for hiding her personal views during a televised debate with him, but expressing her views on tort reform and abortion in comments to Melvin-friendly audiences.

As you've probably guessed, Melvin is politically connected. Her sister, Jane Orie, just happens to be a state senator. Incidentally, she's a member of the judiciary committee, too. According to The Insider, these two sisters have a "well-known long-standing political feud" with fellow Republican Melissa Hart. "If Hart came out for light, the Ories would back dark."

Judges like Melvin prove Norco DA John Morganelli's point - "judges are probably the most political animals in the political and legal jungle." But the Pennsylvania Bar Association still recommends her retention. That's no shocker, considering that these sycophants recommended the retention of insurance fraud Defendant Michael (call me Judge) Joyce, too.

Thin-Skinned Melvin Tries Some Legal Intimidation Against Cyber-Critics



In addition to being a political animal, Melvin is also a thin-skinned bully. She proved that through five years of quixotic litigation in two separate states over anonymous comments posted on a Pittsburgh-based political gossip site. A group of John Does had criticized her "misconduct" in asking Governor Ridge to appoint someone she knew to a judgeship. I'm not sure how that even constitutes defamation, but I guess it must be per se defamation to criticize a superior court judge.

First, she sued in Virginia, trying to learn the identity of the anonymous cretins who had sullied her sparkling reputation. She got nowhere.

She had a little more success on her home field when she filed a second lawsuit in Allegheny County. But America Online branded Melvin's attempt at intimidation "an illegitimate use of the courts to silence and retaliate against speakers." And Witold Walczak, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh ACLU, noted the important role of anonymous speech in a democracy. "Not only did The Federalist Papers and Thomas Paine's Common Sense, both printed pseudonymously, change the course of American history, but evidence today suggests that anonymous Internet speech played a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union."

The state supreme court eventually agreed, and ruled Melvin had to prove financial loss before demanding the identity of her critics. "[G]enerally, the constitutional right to anonymous free speech is deeply rooted in public policy that goes beyond this particular litigation, and ... it falls within the class of rights that are too important to be denied review."

Thankfully, Melvin abandoned her legal bullying. Never admitting she had been wrong, her attorney claimed it would have taken too many years.

Melvin Sues Again, Over That Payraise

Now with her defamation suit out of the way, Melvin took politics by litigation to a new level by suing to demand that the state pay her less money. She lost that suit, too. Here's what one of those dastardly anonymous cyber-critics said. "[F]or a sitting judge to seek a court order barring the payment to her of a pay raise--a raise the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had already ruled could not constitutionally be repealed--is an abuse of the very judicial system she purportedly represents. I will certainly vote 'no' on her retention."

Gee, I wonder if she's going to sue him.

Her Mean-Spirited Record From the Bench

Melvin has 139 written opinions online, and 31 of these are concurring or dissenting opinions. These opinions, quite frankly, reveal a mean-spirited person who should not be sitting in judgement of anyone. In her little world, juvenile adjudications would count as criminal convictions under the "three strikes" act. The fourth amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure would be meaningless. An insurance company contractually required to pay for a building in disrepair would not be required to do so unless that building collapsed. A father who disciplines his daughter would be subjected to a PFA order. On appeal, she would make her own credibility determinations on witnesses she never saw or heard, forbidden territory for an appellate judge.

Conclusion

Melvin might be a gifted politician, but she's not a gifted judge. Her attempt at legal intimidation could be expected from a major corporation, but a slapsuit from a sitting judge is bizarre. And her second suit over the payraise is pure grandstanding. Her money gathering, especially from lawyers, is obscene. And her contrarian opinions reveal an utter lack of compassion.Update: John Micek, with just a tad of sarcasm, tells us that PACleanSweep founder Russ Diamond may remove Melvin from his judicial hit list, directed at every judge up for retention. "If Judge Orie Melvin has paid back the net amount of everything she's received since the pay raise began, we'll definitely take her off our list of 'No' judges." Based on her entire record and history, I could never vote to retain her.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Why Justice Saylor Should Not be Retained on Pa.'s Supreme Court

PACleanSweep, a reform movement that rose from the ashes of a midnight legislative and judicial payraise, is already urging "every Pennsylvanian to go to the polls on November 6 and cast a resounding NO vote in every one of these retention races." Although this is a knee jerk reaction, a judgeship has all too often been regarded as some form of divine right. Our judges are akin to the priesthood of the middle ages, a class apart, isolated and arrogant.

Don't take my word for it. Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli says much the same thing. "If anyone tries to tell you that judges are apolitical, tell them to call me. In my 26 years as a practicing lawyer, I have learned that judges are probably the most political animals in the political and legal jungle. Not all of them, of course. But many come to their positions with the same prejudices and bias that we all have from our life experience. The donning of the black robe allows them to hide behind the law while forming their own ideas of how things should be."

On November 6, we will decide whether to retain Republican Tom Saylor on Pennsylvania's Supreme Court for another ten years. He's already in trouble. According to a Daily News poll, only 18% of the voters have decided to support him. Many voters, disenchanted by our state officials, remain undecided. The purpose of this post is to provide you with facts upon which you can decide whether Saylor deserves your vote. I can't give him mine.

What is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court?

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court is our state court of "last resort," consisting of seven justices who are initially elected to ten-year terms. Their annual salary is $175,236. The justice with the most seniority is chief justice, who's paid $180,336. Justices also have an unlimited expense account for judicial bottles of beaujolais. After their initial ten year term expires, judges are retained by a simple "yes" or "no" statewide vote. And so it goes until mandatory retirement at age 70. So far, only one justice has ever lost a retention election.

Voters historically pay little attention to appellate court judges, but the supreme court ultimately decides the most important questions, from how we're taxed to school funding to who dies in the death chamber. Death penalty appeals are mandatory. In most other cases, the state's high court can simply refuse to consider a case. And most appeals are rejected.

In 2006, the state's high court handed down only 258 opinions, or 43 per justice. That's under one opinion every week! And these guys have law clerks who do most of the writing.

Administratively, the supreme court is responsible for maintaining a single, integrated judicial system. It has supervisory authority over all other state courts. It currently is computerizing court records throughout the state.

Who is Tom Saylor?

Saylor, born in 1946, is a native of Somerset County. That's the rural western Pennsylvania county where hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on 9/11. No aristocrat, the young Saylor bagged groceries at the local A&P. His dad was a bookkeeper and his mom a school board secretary. After graduating from law school, Saylor worked in the DA's office and private practice until 1982.

Since 1982, Saylor has been entrenched in Harrisburg, the land of midnight payraises. He worked for the state attorney general, and then left for private practice at a capitol law firm. In 1993, he was elected to the state superior court. Just four years later, he became a supreme. At the time of his initial election, he was "not recommended" by the Pennsylvania Bar Association evaluation committee. This time around, the high priests at the PBA give him their blessing, for whatever it's worth.

Saylor has been married to the same woman for 36 years. He has two adult children, a Baltimore school teacher and an air force pilot. His financial disclosure reports reveal his only sources of income are his salary as a supreme court justice and his Fidelity investment. Like most of us, he has a mortgage.

Saylor's Mini-Scandals

Although Saylor's roots are rural, he has been a resident and "worker" bee in the land of midnight payraises since 1982. His years in Harrisburg appear to have infected him. Some of his extrajudicial antics might make you think he's actually a state rep.

Evidence of this first surfaced back in 2005, when it was revealed that Saylor was one of six justices who spent $164,000 in taxpayer money for expenses that extended from $1,766 to frame a picture to $85 for a bottle of wine. Over a six month period, Saylor billed taxpayers for 34 carwashes for his publicly supplied car. Legal Intelligencer columnist Howard Bashman never bought Cappy's feeble "high society" justification. He felt this propensity to run up the public tab, by itself, was a good reason to vote NO.

Saylor let voters down a second time in 2005, during a bizarre incident at Harrisburg International Airport. When initially searched, he was told he couldn't carry a small, Swiss-army style, knife onto the plane, but could store it with checked luggage. So what did he do? He hid the knife inside a shoe. For that little trick, he was ultimately fined $750 and named by TalkLeft as "Stupid Criminal of the Week."

Saylor's Payraise Dissent

Saylor's supporters are quick to note he is the sole justice who dissented from the judicial and legislative payraise that the boys in Harrisburg awarded to themselves. But he is the only justice facing retention this year. His vote is no surprise. During oral arguments on the case, he kept his mouth shut. His dissent is political expedience.

In five short pages, Saylor pretty much agrees completely with the 100-page Castille majority. He only dissents because, in his view, judges' pay hikes could not legally be severed from the raises lawmakers awarded to themselves.

Dave Ralis, at the time, made this comment: "[F]or that false show of dissent, Saylor's head deserves to be the first to fall from the chopping block. He was simply trying to make himself look a little better than the rest. But when you read what Saylor actually said, he managed to make himself look worse."

Saylor's Opinions Limit Privacy and Expression Rights, and Expand State Police Power

In a review of 174 opinions published online, I see no Great Dissenter, standing up against a reckless state legislature. What I see instead is a judge who has shown a tendency to limit individual rights, while expanding the state's police power. Duquesne Law Review, referred to in Saylor's own campaign site, shares this view.

Saylor penned the majority opinion that gives a constitutional kiss to the Big Brother practice of stopping motorists at highway checkpoints. In doing so, he ignored the "cold hard facts" showing these roadblocks are a colossal waste of time. In his dissent, then Justice Nigro noted "the substantial intrusion that those checkpoints impose on the lives of law-abiding motorists, who must often wait in the backlog of traffic caused by the checkpoints even before enduring the actual stop by police once they reach the checkpoint."

Saylor has accelerated Pennsylvania's slow slide into a police state, with a concurring opinion in another case involving the warrantless recording of telephone conversations. A druggie had allowed police to tape his conversations with his supplier, and the court ruled this supplier had no reasonable expectation of privacy. To three members of the court, this was a bad call. "Today the majority holds that the Pennsylvania Constitution affords no protection against the government listening to, recording and reporting the details of our private telephone conversations. By holding that we have no expectation of privacy in the confidential messages and conversations transmitted from our telephones, it has placed the freedom of every citizen into the hands of the law enforcement authorities. . . . Following the majority's analysis to its logical conclusion, there is no constitutional precept preventing the government from tapping any individuals phone line for any reason."

A final illustration of Saylor's "Big Brother Knows Best" attitude, is demonstrated by his restrictive attitude towards our most fundamental right - free speech. In Pennsylvania, more than other states, free speech has long had a special meaning. Founder William Penn had been prosecuted in England for the "crime" of preaching to an unlawful assembly. Pennsylvania courts have broadly interpreted free expression, even when it involves nude dancing. Saylor, standing alone, would give legislative bodies more latitude in regulating speech.

Saylor Has a Mixed Record on Pennsylvanians' Right to Know

On his campaign site, Saylor claims that, time and again, he has favored the right of the public and the free press to access government documents and records. In truth, he has a mixed record. He proudly points to a decision in which he ordered the public disclosure of an audiotape made played at a preliminary hearing. But he fails to tell you he refused to sanction disclosure of a telephone call made to a 911 center, reporting a local shooting. He also denied a request from two state legislators to examine an accounting report that formed the basis of a $145 million settlement in litigation against the state.

Saylor and Citizen Access

I am astonished that Saylor actually takes credit for his logically tortured dissents in Nader and Romanelli, Green party candidates who were removed from the ballot in 2006. Nader was so clear that the majority found no need for an opinion. The Commonwealth Court had already ruled that "the signature gathering process was the most deceitful and fraudulent exercise ever perpetrated upon this Court."

Saylor's dissent was clearly a jab at the Commonwealth Court. Was Saylor really motivated by an altruistic desire to enhance third party ballot access? Or was he trying to help fellow Republican Rick Santorum, who was twenty points behind Bob Casey in the polls?

On other matters, Saylor has been downright draconian about citizen access to the courts. When a group of citizens took Delaware County to court, forcing it to adopt is first ever storm water management plan, he penned the opinion reversing a court order authorizing attorney fees. In an eminent domain case, he argued unsuccessfully against paying off a landowner's mortgage interest in condemned property.

Saylor and Medical Malpractice

Saylor proudly announces the endorsement of the Pennsylvania Orthopaedic Society, who loves his stance on medical liability "reform," i. e., making it more difficult for someone to recover damages against a negligent physician. I thought it was up to the legislature to make decisions like that. Silly me.

Following the Money

As of mid June, Saylor's warchest was standing tall at $65,099.83. It will get a lot bigger as the election approaches. Most of his money comes from lawyers who practice before the court, doctors who want to put a stop to medical malpractice and the pro-growth Pa Future Fund. It's a cornucopia of special interests.

Conclusion

Although Saylor strikes me as a decent man, I believe we can do better on the state's highest court. From his disingenuous dissent in the judicial payraise to his Big Brother view of government, we will suffer the loss of more individual liberties if he remains on the bench. His long residence in Harrisburg, coupled with his willing participation in judicial excesses, reveal him as an insider. Final confirmation of his allegiance to special interests comes from his campaign treasury. I'm voting NO.