- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 29, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Five Democrats seeking nominations for an unprecedented three open seats on the state Supreme Court stuck to their campaign scripts on Wednesday, avoiding clashes with each other as they fielded questions at a candidates’ forum.

During more than an hour of discussion at Widener University Law School, a panel of three journalists asked about the candidates’ views on topics as diverse as the death penalty, the influence of outside money in judicial politics and what qualities voters are looking for in choosing justices.

A similar forum for the six Republican candidates is scheduled for Thursday. The primary election is May 19.

The Democratic hopefuls, all state or county judges, were divided when asked to identify the biggest problem facing Pennsylvania’s judiciary.

Philadelphia Judge Kevin Dougherty and Allegheny County Judge Dwayne Woodruff said it is the tarnished image left by scandals that forced two justices to resign and the kids-for-cash scandal that sent two Luzerne County judges to prison.

Others bemoaned the lack of legal services for indigents charged with crimes. Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue said such defendants often do not even meet their court-appointed attorneys until they appear in court.

“Justice cannot be done under those circumstances,” she said.

Another Superior Court judge, Anne Lazarus, said a similar lack of legal resources for indigents plagues civil proceedings.

“They can go nowhere, really, for help,” Lazarus said.

Asked to name the best and worst recent Supreme Court rulings, more than one candidate said the best was the court’s 2012 decision striking down much of an industry friendly law that required local governments to allow natural-gas drilling in every zoning district, including residential areas.

The candidates generally expressed support for increased media access to court proceedings but emphasized that judges must have authority to limit access if it interferes with the jury’s deliberations or victims’ privacy.

Most of the candidates cited integrity as a critical quality for a judge, while Superior Court Judge David Wecht outlined a five-point plan for enhancing accountability for the judiciary that included banning gifts to judge, ending nepotism, putting public cameras in courtrooms and mandating ethics training for judicial candidates.

“We need a spirit of reform ethic and collegiality on the Supreme Court,” Wecht said.

A sixth Democratic candidate, Jefferson County Judge John Foradora, did not participate in the forum.

Sponsoring the back-to-back forums are the Philadelphia-based judicial reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters.

The state Supreme Court is the highest court in the commonwealth, and its seven justices receive more than 3,000 requests for appellate review each year.

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