- Associated Press - Monday, July 27, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A Philadelphia judge could become the first independent or minor-party candidate more than two decades to make the ballot for Pennsylvania’s highest court.

Paul Panepinto’s signature-gathering effort has passed 22,000, thousands more than the number of signatures of registered voters he needs to submit to make the Nov. 3 ballot, a spokesman said Monday.

An unprecedented three Supreme Court seats are up for grabs in the election, and three Republicans and three Democrats are already running.

Court watchers said the last time a minor-party or independent candidate made the high court ballot was in 1993, when Bob Surrick of the Patriot Party did it. At least one analyst expects that Panepinto will have a difficult time making a mark on the election.

Historically speaking, the vast majority of people who vote in low-turnout elections like the one in November vote for the party, not the individual, said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of political science and Franklin and Marshall College’s pollster.

“What will matter are the party hand bills, the party emails and the handouts and who are they giving this out to? The party faithful,” Madonna said.

Panepinto, who is running as an independent, must file at least 16,639 signatures of registered voters by Aug. 3 to quality for the ballot. A spokesman, Joe Sterns, said Panepinto’s team has passed 22,000 and could reach 30,000 by the time he turns them in to state elections officials.

Panepinto’s announcement comes just after a federal judge released a ruling Friday that provisions in Pennsylvania law make it unconstitutionally difficult for independent or minor-party candidates to get onto ballots.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel’s ruling apparently threw out the financial penalties that judges can impose on candidates who lose a court challenge to the validity of the signatures of registered voters on their nomination papers.

The threat of paying lawyers’ fees and other costs racked up by the challengers is designed to dissuade the submission of fraudulent nomination papers. But it also dissuades legitimate candidates, Stengel wrote, and the burden of the fines falls unequally heavy on minor party or independent candidates.

Major party candidates needed 1,000 valid signatures to get on the primary ballot for state Supreme Court.

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