State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

High court chief justice wants 7th seat filled, pronto

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Mar 25, 2013 9:32 PM
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Photo by Mary Wilson / witf

How long will the high court wait to be made whole?

That’s one of the questions that went unanswered by the state Supreme Court Chief Justice just hours after its only suspended judge, Joan Orie Melvin, submitted her resignation letter to the governor.

Orie Melvin, who was convicted last month on campaign corruption charges, said in the letter that she’ll step down May 1 – about a week before her scheduled sentencing, and almost a year after she was charged and subsequently suspended from the bench.

The result of that suspension was a seat in limbo and a six-member bench unable to break three-three ties on court decisions except by meeting in conference and persuading a justice to change his or her mind.

“No one gets any guidance from a three-three, it’s as simple as that,” said Chief Justice Ron Castille after regaling the audience at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg.

Orie Melvin’s resignation clears the way to find a replacement. Castille wants it done without having to wait for an election to fill the position (that would require waiting until January 2016, he said).

Gov. Corbett released a statement Monday afternoon expressing his intention to nominate an interim justice to fill Orie Melvin’s soon-to-be empty seat. He would have until about August to make his nomination. Then, the state Senate would need to confirm the choice by a two-thirds vote.

“So you need all the Republicans and eight Democrats if the governor wants to appoint a Republican,” said Castille, adding that the seat should be filled by a Republican, since Orie Melvin won her election to the bench on the GOP ticket.

But Castille cast doubt on whether a governor’s nomination could be finalized with – to use a favorite term of the court – alacrity.

“I guess it would have to be the Senate would be – might be the hold up,” said Castille. “They’re focused on the budget at this time of the year mostly, so.” He trailed off.

There’s another avenue here. The Supreme Court justices could appoint a replacement judge on their own.

One of Castille’s colleagues on the bench, Justice J. Michael Eakin, said earlier this month that the court does not want to appoint a replacement judge on its own and block a move by the governor to appoint an interim justice.

“The justice may have been speaking for himself but there’s five other – the rest of us,” said Castille. When asked if the chief justice would reveal his own opinion, he chuckled.

“We’re going to try and get a seventh justice,” he said – even if it means appointing the justice themselves.

Of course, a final court appointment may be no faster than the governor. Any interim justice would need to get a majority vote among the six justices. And, of course, we are without a tiebreaker.

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