Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Curious Case: The Trib And Mrs. Zappala Peck

The level of inanity associated with the Tribune-Review's judicial endorsements has reached a point that perplexes, causing me to wonder what might explain the situation. My current theory: A saboteur.

I refer not to virulent ideological extremism or petty personal vendettas -- both staples at the Trib's news and editorial desks -- but instead to choices and reasoning so bizarre as to be, in at least one circumstance, inexplicable.

For Allegheny County's Court of Common Pleas, the Trib endorsed two strong candidates (Phil Ignelzi, Hugh McGough) and one acceptable candidate (Arnie Klein). But the editorial then veers into a logical black hole, endorsing Michele Zappala Peck and Carolyn Saldari Bengel with unqualified praise while overlooking several qualified candidates (Joe Williams and Alex Bicket, for starters).

What caused the Trib to salute Mrs. Zappala Peck, an unqualified Democrat, as an "eminently qualified" and "accomplished attorney?" Was it her distinguished record as an able trial lawyer, her renowned mastery of a specialized field of transactional law, her sterling academic record? Unlikely, because she passed the bar exam less than five years ago --after graduating from a bottom-of-the-barrel law school without discernible honors -- and her professional record since admission to the bar consists primarily of a
an 18-month stint on the Board of Viewers, a traditional parking lot for the mediocre but politically connected . . . and a position that does not require a law degree
. The bar association reviewed this record -- Mrs. Zappala Peck would struggle to reach the 20th percentile of Allegheny County lawyers, even with her family's thumbs on the scale -- and determined this candidate to be "not recommended;" the Trib found the bar association's reasoning "beyond us" en route to affixing its "accomplished attorney" and "eminently qualified" labels.

Less ridiculous, but still strange, is the Trib's use of the same term -- "eminently qualified" -- in endorsing Carolyn Saldari Bengel. (The bar association also used its same term -- "not recommended" -- with respect to Mrs. Saldari Bengel.) Again, the Trib engages in gymnastic stretching to push for an unqualified Democrat. Why?

Another strange Trib endorsement concerned the Republican nomination for Superior Court. Three Republicans are unopposed in pursuit of three nominations, so no endorsement (or lack of endorsement) is likely to help or hurt a candidate. Yet the Trib, "just for the record," "put in a kind word for one [and only one] Republican," Templeton Smith Jr. Mr. Smith is a credible candidate, but what could explain the Trib's disregard of Judge Judith Olson, class of the Republican field (best lawyer in the Republican race, already an outstanding judge, hometown candidate)?

There is plenty of fault to find with other judicial calls by the Trib. For example, Joan Orie Melvin is a political hack and mediocre judge who was appointed as a magistrate and as a county judge before she was qualified (here is an interesting but shrill summary of her record). In the Trib's eyes, this "stellar record" makes her "one shining, crystal-clear choice."

The factual inversion of the Zappala Peck endorsement, however, executed on behalf of an unqualified Democrat by a right-of-right-wing editorial page, is uniquely puzzling. Can anyone provide a conceivable explanation? Until someone advances a better explanation, the only one that comes to mind is that a saboteur is mocking his newspaper's owner with exaggerations of the Trib's customary goofy editorial lurches.

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