Pa. officials appeal ruling on Senate seat State, GOP seek go-ahead on election

June 14, 1991|By Lyle Denniston and Paul West | Lyle Denniston and Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- State officials and Republican leaders in Pennsylvania will go to a federal appeals court today to try to overturn a federal judge's ruling that has sent state politics whirling into controversy over election of a new U.S. senator.

State Attorney General Ernest R. Preate plans to lay out the details of the state's challenge at a news conference in Harrisburg this morning.

In addition, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who has formally movedinto the case along with state GOP leaders, will file his own legal challenge, he said here last night.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia will be asked to put the appeal -- by high state officials and by key state Republicans, soon to be joined by state Democrats -- on a track for a rapid decision.

The Senate vacancy in Pennsylvania was created by the death of John Heinz in an airplane crash in April.

A Democrat, Sen. Harris Wofford, is filling the seat by appointment until an election is held to select a successor to Mr. Heinz.

Mr. Wofford has planned to seek the seat in an election in November, and his opponent was expected to be U.S. Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh.

But the timetable for that election, along with political maneuvering in the state, was thrown into turmoil Monday by a ruling by U.S. District Judge Edward N. Cahn Jr., striking down Pennsylvania's law permitting state party leaders to pick the nominees for the vacant seat.

The judge declared that, if Pennsylvania wanted to have nominees chosen before the November general election, the voters of the state had to be given a role because the Constitution forbids state politicians to do the choosing alone.

An aide to Mr. Thornburgh said yesterday that, as a result of the Cahn ruling, it appeared likely that a November election could not be held.

"There is a reasonable probability that there will not be an election this year or next year," the aide suggested -- because of the legal controversy.

But Mr. Specter said in a telephone interview that the Circuit Court can reach a final ruling, upholding or overturning Judge Cahn's ruling, "in a matter of a couple of weeks." He predicted -- as have political figures in both parties in the state -- that Judge Cahn's decision would be overturned.

Mr. Specter moved into the legal dispute along with state GOP officials because, his lawyers said, the state government was led primarily by Democrats, and they would not represent adequately the interests of Republicans.

A Democratic source in the state, asking not to be identified, said state party leaders would also seek to join in the case at the appeals court.

That source said that lawyers for the Democrats were advising that there was a "better than 50-50 chance" that the higher court would reject Judge Cahn's ruling, permitting state party committees to make the nominations for the vacant seat.

Mr. Wofford has been already nominated by the state Democratic committee, and Mr. Thornburgh was scheduled to be chosen by the GOP counterpart Aug. 15.

If Judge Cahn's decision were to be upheld, however, Pennsylvania's legislature would have to pass a new law to create a primary election so that voters could be involved in the full selection process.

GOP legislators, who control the state Senate, said they would move promptly to get a new law setting up a September primary, but Democratic lawmakers -- who control the lower house -- said they saw no need to rush new legislation.

The legislature is due to adjourn July 1.

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