By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
In a move that is a first for a Mercer County judicial election, challenges have been filed against the petitions of three of five candidates running for Common Pleas Court judge.
A petition filed Wednesday by James T. Walsh, a lawyer representing Kara Liscio of Sharon and William M. Griffin of Wheatland, asks the state to review the authenticity of some signatures on nominating petitions submitted to get candidates on the primary ballots. The challengers are also questioning the legality of one candidate notarizing his own petitions.
The five candidates running for a 10-year-term are: Jim Ryan, Sharpsville; Victor S. Heutsche, Sharon; Joann M. Jofery, Wheatland; Daniel P. Wallace, West Salem Township; and Ryan Mergl, of Sharon.
Challenges have been filed against the petitions submitted by Ryan, Jofrey and Wallace, according to the state’s Unified Judicial System website.
Judicial candidates typically file on both Republican and Democratic ballots since the office is nominally non-partisan and all of the candidates submitted petitions to cross file. To do that they needed to gather at least 250 signatures from registered voters of each party.
Walsh, of Pittsburgh, said his clients, whom he referred to as private citizens and not political operatives, want to be sure that candidates for judge meet the “minimum threshold” for election requirements.
“I don’t ever remember a judge losing a retention vote, so essentially this is a lifetime position. We want to see that the person who takes this job can at least meet those very basic requirements of getting valid signatures,” Walsh said.
Commonwealth Court will review the cases in the first week of April, Walsh said, and he is asking that signatures that are not valid be thrown out. In some cases, he said, that may result in candidates not having the required number of signatures and not eligible to be on the ballot in the May 21 primary election.
Walsh said he and his clients reviewed the signatures on the petitions, which he called an “arduous process” and question the legality of “hundreds of signatures.” He is not seeking to have the entire petitions dismissed, only those signatures in question.
“We’re seeing things like Democrats signing Republican petitions, Republicans signing Democratic petitions, a husband signing for both himself and his wife, with the same exact handwriting, people with incomplete addresses, things like that,” he said.
He also said Wallace, who is a notary public, notarized his own petitions, which is not permitted under state election law.
Wallace admitted he notarized petitions that were circulated by others for him, but not the ones he personally circulated.
“I did do that. And I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to. I didn’t see anywhere that I couldn’t. But I also know that ignorance of the law is no excuse,” he said.
“But it is very unfortunate that the judicial campaign has come to this. It’s usually about campaigning on your qualifications, not your petitions,” Wallace said.
He said he has more than twice the required number of signatures and even if some are thrown out, he will be within the requirements on the Republican petition but not the Democratic. He also said he hasn’t made up his mind yet about what to do about court challenge.
“I guess it’s just a matter of working through it, but if mine and others get thrown out, the voters will all be disenfranchised in the primary election,” Wallace said.
Walsh said he was “surprised” by the reaction Wallace allegedly had to the person serving him the court papers. “I was told he was rude and indignant. I would think someone running for a job as a judge wouldn’t be thrown by a lawsuit.”
Wallace said he was upset, but not because his petition was challenged, but rather because he isn’t sure who is behind the challenge. He said one of the petitioners, Griffin, accompanied the person serving the papers.
“And I looked him in the eye and asked him ‘Why did you do this?’ and he said ‘I was bored’ and that upset me,” Wallace said.
Wallace and Jofrey both said they suspect another candidate may be behind the challenge, but had no proof. Jofrey said she has retained counsel and didn’t want to comment on the challenge, beyond saying that she was “disappointed” because it isn’t the way judicial races are normally conducted.
Griffin, who circulated petitions for Mergl, has an address in Wheatland, but no contact information was available Thursday.
Mergl confirmed that Griffin circulated petitions for him and said the two have been “friends since childhood,” but denied that he had any knowledge of Griffin’s bid to challenge his competitors’ petitions. He said he is not behind the challenge and said he did not know Liscio, the other petitioner.
Jeff Greenburg, the county’s director of elections, said he is hoping the courts deal with challenges in a timely manner, as the county is in the process of preparing primary election ballots. “Hopefully they will realize the time constraints involved with this. It’s a first for Mercer County,” he said.
The court will consider Jofrey’s petition on April 2, Wallace’s petition on April 4 and Ryan’s on April 11.