HARRISBURG, Pa. — A state judge refused late last week to block an out-of-state group's TV commercial that Pennsylvania's top legal and election officials said illegally promotes one of the four candidates for state Supreme Court.
Senior Judge Barry F. Feudale Jr. acknowledged on Nov. 2 that the ad produced by the Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom "may well cross the line" of what the Pennsylvania Election Code allows third-party groups to say about political candidates.
But he said the 30-second spot does not mention that Republican Maureen Lally-Green is a Supreme Court candidate and asks Pennsylvanians to thank her for her service as a Superior Court judge, rather than urging her election to the state's highest court on Election Day tomorrow.
"It does not 'expressly advocate' the election of Judge Lally-Green," said Feudale, who presided over a 2½-hour hearing in Commonwealth Court on state officials' request to halt the ad. The spot is being aired across the state, including in the expensive Philadelphia market.
In their complaint, Attorney General Tom Corbett and Secretary of State Pedro Cortes said the ad violates the election code's ban on corporate contributions and expenditures because the center itself is a corporation and because other corporations give it money.
The center also violated a requirement that political committees register with the state and publicly disclose the source of their financing because the ad expressly advocates support for Lally-Green in the election, the state officials said.
Albert H. Masland, chief counsel for the Department of State, said no decision had been made on whether to appeal Feudale's order and any further action was unlikely before today.
Masland said it was important to test the legal principles of the case, but "I knew it would be a challenging case to win."
At the hearing, an attorney for the center said his client could be charged with violating the election code, but a court order blocking the airing of the ad would violate free-speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.
"This is just not the kind of thing we do in America," lawyer Tom Kirby told the judge.
Kirby did not return telephone messages seeking comment on the judge's ruling in time for this story.
The spot focuses exclusively on Lally-Green, a Superior Court judge from western Pennsylvania and a GOP nominee for either of two open seats on the state's highest court. It portrays her as a law-and-order judge and concludes by urging Pennsylvanians to "thank Judge Lally-Green for supporting Pennsylvania families."
"It can only really mean one thing, and that is to thank her by voting for her on Nov. 6," Masland said at the hearing.
"Somebody might draw that inference. Somebody else might not," Kirby countered.
Lally-Green's campaign spokesman reiterated that neither she nor anyone on her campaign had ever communicated with the center.
"We're not going to encourage them and we're not going to discourage them," said the spokesman, Mark Weaver.
A campaign spokesman for one of Lally-Green's Democratic foes, Superior Court Judge Seamus McCaffery of Philadelphia, criticized the ruling.
"It's disappointing that an election to our highest court may be decided because of out-of-state, hidden and potentially illegal campaign financing," said the spokesman, Dan Fee. "Judges should be focused on what is right, not just what is legal."
The other candidates are Superior Court Judge Debra Todd, a Democrat, and Republican Michael Krancer, a Montgomery County lawyer.