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Judge Rejects Method for Choosing Heinz Successor

June 11, 1991

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ A federal judge Monday rejected Pennsylvania’s method for picking a successor to the late Republican Sen. John Heinz, throwing Attorney General Dick Thornburgh’s candidacy into doubt.

The judge said state election law unconstitutionally lets Republican and Democratic party committees pick nominees for a special Senate election instead of letting voters choose the candidates in primaries.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Edward N. Cahn could delay the special election scheduled for November to fill the unexpired term of Heinz, who died April 4 in a plane-helicopter crash.

The law ″operates to abridge the right to vote of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,″ Cahn held in a 21-page decision.

President Bush last week announced Thornburgh’s plans to seek the Senate seat, and he asked the attorney general to stay in office at least through July. Democrats demanded Thornburgh’s immediate departure.

Thornburgh aides said later last week that concerns about the lawsuit before Cahn prompted him to delay leaving the Cabinet. Justice Department spokesman Dan Eramian affirmed that statement Monday.

Cahn’s ruling offered no alternative method for selecting a replacement, but he suggested in a footnote that Pennsylvania could have a fall primary and spring special election. State Attorney General Ernie Preate’s office was studying the opinion to determine how to proceed, spokesman Jack Lewis said.

After Cahn issued his ruling, a Thornburgh aide said the attorney general still planned to run for the Senate if an election were held this November, but his plans could change if the balloting were postponed indefinitely. Thornburgh would run in a GOP primary if one were scheduled before a November election, the aide said on condition of anonymity.

The state GOP hasn’t formally endorsed Thornburgh. The Democratic state committee has endorsed Harris Wofford, whom Gov. Robert P. Casey appointed to fill Heinz’s seat until the special election.

Cahn’s ruling came in a lawsuit by John S. Trinsey Jr., a developer from suburban Philadelphia who was going to try to get on the ballot as an independent. Trinsey said Monday night he’ll now seek the Republican nomination.

″The people of Pennsylvania are going to have a fair chance at elections from this day on,″ Trinsey said. ″No one is going to pull off a smoky room decision.″

While overturning the special election process, Cahn rejected Trinsey’s contention that Casey’s interim appointment of Wofford was illegal.

Wofford spokesman David Stone said: ″When the lawyers and judges figure out when there should be an election, he’ll be ready to go.″

Cahn also denied Trinsey’s request that he be allowed to run as an independent on the November ballot without collecting 41,305 signatures.

Cahn said the state’s special Senate election procedure violates the 17th Amendment of the Constitution, which says that a state governor can make a temporary appointment ″until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.″

″One purpose of the amendment ... was to wrest control of the Senate from small elite groups who controlled the political parties,″ Cahn wrote.

Republican State Committee Chairman Anne B. Anstine said, ″I think this is a very bad situation and I can’t see any good coming out of it. I think the people of Pennsylvania are being penalized.″

″This could delay everything indefinitely,″ she said.

Casey administration spokesman John Taylor wouldn’t comment.

″Our lawyers are looking at it,″ he said.

After Thornburgh’s political plans were announced last week, House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, urged him to resign immediately as attorney general. They said Thornburgh’s continued tenure created the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Thornburgh dismissed the criticism as being motivated by partisanship and insisted that he wasn’t a candidate because the Pennsylvania GOP hadn’t officially nominated him.

But several ethics-law experts, including New York University professor Stephen Gillers, also said Thornburgh should not remain as the nation’s chief law enforcement official after announcing his candidacy.

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