HARRISBURG - The state's highest court on Thursday struck Gov. Tom Corbett's only Republican challenger from the May 20 primary election ballot, leaving Corbett unchallenged for the GOP nomination he was favored to win anyway.
In a 5-2 decision, the state Supreme Court reversed a Commonwealth Court ruling on grounds that conservative activist Bob Guzzardi's failure to file his statement of financial interests on time with the State Ethics Commission doomed his candidacy.
"The untimely filing of the statement constitutes a fatal defect that precludes a candidate's appearance on the ballot," the majority wrote.
Challengers backed by the state Republican Party had raised the late ethics commission filing during a two-day hearing, but Commonwealth Court Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt ruled that Guzzardi was not to blame because of mistakes by State Department employees.
Justices Max Baer and Debra McCloskey Todd dissented, saying Guzzardi was "ready, willing and able" to file the statement on time but did not because a State Department employee said it was unnecessary.
Guzzardi, an outspoken critic of Corbett and the state Republican establishment, said Thursday he was surprised that the party "spent so much time and energy to remove a Republican from a Republican ballot."
The Ardmore businessman is an advocate of smaller government and lower taxes. A longshot candidate, he had attacked Corbett for violating his 2010 campaign pledge not to raise taxes by increasing taxes on gasoline and by authorizing new fees on natural-gas drilling.
Corbett's campaign chairman, Mike Barley, referred questions about the petition challenge to Republican Party leaders and said the court ruling "doesn't affect our strategy at all."
State GOP Chairman Rob Gleason did not return a voicemail seeking comment.
The Republican State Committee pulled out the stops to shield Corbett, whose low popularity ratings underscore his vulnerability, from a primary challenge. Its general counsel questioned witnesses and made closing arguments at the hearing.
Corbett's campaign had raised $9 million through the end of March, according to campaign finance reports. Guzzardi reported raising less than $5,000.
Four Democrats are vying for the nomination to take on Corbett in the general election campaign.