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Bipartisan deal in works to stock Pa. Supreme Court

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State of Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Supreme Court members in December 2013: Front row, from left: Justice Thomas G. Saylor, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, Justice J. Michael Eakin. Back row, from left: Justice Seamus P. McCaffrey, Justice Max Baer, Justice Debra McCloskey Todd, Justice Correale F. Stevens
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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille
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Submitted
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery

HARRISBURG — A potential deal is in the wind for the next governor, whether it’s Republican Gov. Tom Corbett or Democratic nominee Tom Wolf, to nominate a Republican and a Democrat to fill two Supreme Court seats until voters elect two justices in November 2015, Senate leaders said Tuesday.

“It clearly has all the workings of a deal that could be made,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said there’s “an opportunity to have someone confirmed in late January, provided it’s a bipartisan approach.”

Justice Seamus McCaffery, 64, retired Monday amid a scandal over transmitting pornography to the Attorney General’s Office. The court had suspended McCaffery, a Philadelphia Democrat, citing the sexually explicit email and accusations he tried to fix his wife’s parking ticket and may have allowed her to collect referral fees from lawyers as his court employee.

A second vacancy will occur Dec. 31 when Chief Justice Ronald Castille, 70, a Philadelphia Republican, leaves under the state’s mandatory retirement law.

Court appointees nominated by governors require a two-thirds vote in the 50-member Senate to win confirmation.

The Senate is expected to remain in Republican control after the Nov. 4 election, but Democrat votes would be needed to meet the requirement.

That means neither Corbett nor Wolf would likely get two appointees from his political party, analysts said.

“I expect we’ll see a Republican nominated to replace Castille and a Democrat for McCaffery,” said Moe Coleman, director emeritus of the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh.

Senate Republicans and Democrats appear to get along, and the chamber is “generally less partisan than the House,” Coleman said. He said he believes Corbett or Wolf would stand a good chance to get a bipartisan duo through the Senate because the court’s numbers will be down to five justices instead of seven.

Even if he loses, Corbett could try to appoint justices. Scarnati said that would not be impossible but would be difficult, given a tight time frame.

The next governor will be sworn in Jan. 20. The Senate will be back in session one day on Jan. 6. It would likely require another session day.

Jay Pagni, Corbett’s spokesman, won’t address theoretical scenarios. “No decision has been made as to a nomination,” he said.

Costa doesn’t want nominations “by a lame-duck governor on his way out the door” if Wolf wins the race on Nov. 4.

That doesn’t strike Coleman as Corbett’s style.

“There is no reason for this process to be rushed,” said Wolf’s spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan. “In the past, vacant seats have been filled using a deliberative, collaborative process. If he is elected governor and the vacancies still exist, Tom will address the matter at that time.”

The Supreme Court on Tuesday closed a case involving a justice convicted of felonies last year.

Former Justice Joan Orie Melvin of Marshall dropped the appeal of her sentence on public corruption charges. Convicted of using taxpayer-paid staff to campaign, she appealed having to write apology letters to her staff and every jurist in the state as part of her sentence.

Her notice to the court to drop the appeal includes the letter she’s prepared to send, but Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has “concerns about the language” Melvin used, his spokesman Mike Manko said.

Zappala thinks Melvin tried to “deflect blame for her actions to members of her staff” and he said that “can hardly be considered an apology.”

“As a matter of law, I am guilty of these offenses,” Melvin said in the letter. “…I wish I had been more diligent in my supervision of my staff and that I had given them more careful instructions with respect to the prohibition on political activity.”

Melvin’s attorney, Patrick Casey, declined comment.

McCaffery’s retirement ended a Judicial Conduct Board investigation of his possible ethical violations and preserved McCaffery’s pension.

A provision in the state Constitution holds that judges can lose pensions for ethical violations and for convictions for certain crimes. It covers “misconduct in office or conduct which prejudices the proper administration of justice or brings the judicial office into disrepute.”

It appears that provision would enable the state retirement system to deny pension benefits to a judge on an ethical matter, said Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University Law School. McCaffery’s state pension will be an estimated $151,000, The (Allentown) Morning Call reported. That could change, depending on any lump sum withdrawals.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or [email protected]. Staff writer Brian Bowling contributed.

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