With 3 seats to fill and 3 retirements, change is certain on Pennsylvania's highest court



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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — With six nominees vying for three open seats on the state Supreme Court and campaign dollars already flowing by the millions, change is inevitable.

The new justices who will join the state's highest court in January are expected to restore a full complement of seven elected, working justices for the first time in more than three years.

Since May 2012, when Justice Joan Orie Melvin was suspended after being charged with corruption, the court has been short-handed. It has been buffeted by Melvin's resignation a year later after she was convicted, the resignation of Justice Seamus McCaffery after he was linked to a pornographic government emails scandal and the retirement of Chief Justice Ron Castille. Two seats are vacant, and the third is being filled until Melvin's term expires in January by appointed Justice Correale Stevens, who lost a primary bid for a full term.

The results of the Nov. 3 general election could reaffirm or widen the court's Republican majority, matching solid GOP control of the state Senate and House of Representatives, or, for the first time in six years, transfer control to Democratic allies of Gov. Tom Wolf, who could be in office through 2022.

However voters shape the court, it will be on the cutting edge of important and often politically charged issues such as pension protections for teachers and state employees, potential changes in state and local taxes and the reapportionment of legislative districts following the 2020 census.

While partisan politics provide a framework for electing the state's top judges and inject tension into opposing views in legal issues before the court, they aren't necessarily reliable predictors of how the court will rule.

It's "a very nonpartisan court," said Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh.

For example, the Pennsylvania Constitution requires that state House and Senate districts be redrawn every decade to ensure they're as equal in population and as compact and contiguous as possible based on the latest census.

But in 2012, before Melvin was suspended, political observers were stunned when the Republican-led court voted 4-3 to reject a legislative reapportionment plan endorsed by the GOP majority on the bicameral panel that created it.

Castille, a Republican former Philadelphia district attorney, crossed party lines to vote with the three Democrats, spiking the proposal on grounds that it didn't go far enough to comply with the constitution. As a result, the 2012 legislative elections were based on legislative districts approved in 2001.

The court approved a revised map in time for the 2014 elections.

In a 2013 decision that also involved a Castille defection, the court overturned significant portions of a law limiting the rights of municipalities and counties to regulate the natural gas drilling, rules the industry sought from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and his allies in the Legislature.

The law, which because of a court order never took effect, would have allowed drilling, waste pits, pipelines, compressors and processors in every zoning district, including residential areas.

Castille not only joined the court's three Democrats to form a 4-2 majority but underscored his dislike of the law by writing the majority opinion. He said the rules represented an unprecedented "displacement of prior planning, and derivative expectations, regarding land use, zoning and enjoyment of property."

Castille was required by law to retire at the end of last year, after he turned 70, the mandatory retirement age for Pennsylvania judges.

Of the four current justices whose terms extend beyond this year, three will be forced to retire over the next three years unless lawmakers and voters approve a pending constitutional amendment that increases the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75.

Republican Chief Justice Thomas Saylor will have to step down at the end of next year, followed by Democratic Justice Max Baer in 2017 and Republican Justice J. Michael Eakin in 2018.

In the meantime, they'll be joined by three new colleagues elected from among the candidates nominated in Tuesday's primary — Democrats David Wecht, Kevin Dougherty and Christine Donohue and Republicans Judy Olson, Mike George and Anne Covey.


Peter Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at pjackson@ap.org.

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