Court puts pick of Pa. candidates in parties' hands Election will fill Heinz's Senate seat

August 07, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON VDB — WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that political party leaders in Pennsylvania, not the voters, may pick the candidates who will run in November for a vacant U.S. Senate seat -- a ruling that sets the stage for U.S. Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh's planned return to politics.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ordered its decision into effect immediately, allowing state Republicans to make an early choice of a nominee to run in a special election Nov. 5 against Sen. Harris Wofford, a Democrat who holds the seat temporarily and has been named his party's nominee.

Sen. John Heinz, a Republican, was killed April 4 in an airplane crash. He had two years remaining in his third term; the new senator will finish that term.

Mr. Thornburgh previously disclosed his plan to leave President Bush's Cabinet and seek the Senate seat in a state where he formerly served two terms as governor. It has been clear for some time that, if he wanted the party nomination, it would be his.

Paul Begala, Mr. Wofford's campaign manager, said yesterday that "it is in Senator Wofford's strong interest to get Thornburgh alone" -- the situation that will now occur, since no primary is to be held and the election will be for the Senate seat alone.

Although Mr. Thornburgh had no comment on the ruling, it is understood that he plans to resign within the next two weeks. The president then will name a new attorney general. Among those figuring in speculation about a successor is Edith H. Jones of Houston, a federal appeals court judge whom Mr. Bush has twice considered for Supreme Court nominations.

Even though the ruling by the Circuit Court lifting legal doubts from the Pennsylvania political scene is to be challenged in a further appeal, the chances of ultimately getting the Supreme Court to require a primary to pick the candidates there are considered to be slim at best.

The three-judge panel of the Circuit Court was unanimous in declaring that the Constitution does not require a primary election to name the candidates to compete before the voters in final balloting to name Senator Heinz's replacement.

Mr. Wofford was appointed in May to serve temporarily and was named the Democrats' nominee June 1.

The 270-member Republican State Committee is to meet later this month or early next month to name Mr. Thornburgh as the GOP contender. Under state law, nominees must be chosen by Sept. 5 for the final election to be held Nov. 5.

That will guarantee a fairly short campaign for the seat -- a factor that some experts have thought likely to favor Mr. Thornburgh, because he is believed to be better known in Pennsylvania than Mr. Wofford.

John H. Trinsey Jr., a Royersford, Pa., developer who had wanted to run as the GOP candidate for the Senate seat, went to court to challenge a 1937 state law that gives state party committees the power to select candidates when a senator dies in office or resigns.

Mr. Trinsey said yesterday that he would try to appeal the Circuit Court ruling against his challenge; an appeal beyond the three-judge panel is not an automatic matter.

U.S. District Judge Edward N. Cahn struck down the state party-nomination law June 10, concluding that the Constitution's Amendment, which ordered popular election of U.S. senators, required voters to have a role at every stage of the process. (Before the 17th Amendment, senators were chosen by state legislatures.)

Yesterday, however, the Circuit Court decided that the 17th Amendment did not mandate primaries to fill Senate vacancies.

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