There is no guarantee that the PA Supreme Court is occupied by Supreme Judges.
During the last two decades, lower court judges or connected lawyers from Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, ran for appellate court on the Republican ticket and usually won.
In Pennsylvania, qualifications are seldom an issue in the partisan elections.
Only two Supremes are not from either vote-rich county. Of the 15-member PA Superior appellate court, eight are from Allegheny and one from Philadelphia. Of the nine-member Commonwealth Court, currently only two hail from Allegheny and none from Philly.
Of the 31 appellate judges (and nine more who have retired senior status) only one is not Caucasian. Superior Court Judge Cheryl Allen is female, African-American and from Allegheny County.
If you are female, sexual diversity is somewhat better. On Commonwealth Court females outnumber males, five to four. Ten of the 15 Superior Court jurists are females. Two more women remain members of the Supreme Court, at least until May 1.
That’s the date Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, from Allegheny County, promises to resign. Melvin, 56, voluntarily stepped away from judicial duties last May to battle criminal charges. Melvin and her sister, Janine Orie, 58, chief of staff in the Justice’s office, were convicted this February of campaign corruption.
Melvin’s absence leaves the PA Supremes with a 3-3 tie politically. Once this was not a problem because judges were thought to make rulings on points of law. Now Chief Justice Ron Castille, a Republican, openly talks about the partisan split Court.
Castille is concerned because the Supremes must rule on state legislative re-apportionment plans and could be the final arbiters of Gov. Tom Corbett’s plans to change the lottery, state stores and government workers and teacher pensions.
Corbett gets to pick the successor to Melvin but the replacement must be confirmed by 34 votes in the state senate. To get that many, he needs at least seven Democrat Senators.
Corbett will argue that the appointment will only serve until the next judiciary election, 2015.
Political affiliation is an issue in all three of the state’s appellate courts.
The Supreme Court (including Melvin) is 4-3 Republican. In addition, Superior Court has nine Republicans and six Democrats. Finally, seven of the nine Commonwealth Court justices are Republican.
Republicans have been successful at partisan judicial elections despite having one million less registered voters than Democrats.
Democrat candidates for appellate court judgeships are not necessarily inferior in quality. One year in the last decade, all three Democrats on the ballot were rated “highly recommended” by the state bar association and superior to their Republican opponents in qualifications. All three Democrats lost.
President Superior Court Judge Kate Ford Elliott, an Allegheny County Democrat, considered to be exceptionally qualified, lost when she attempted to move to the Supreme Court.
Now sitting judges hope to push back or eliminate altogether the mandatory age of 70 for retirement. Mandatory retirement will be debated before the PA Supreme Court this summer, decided by judges who will benefit from the change.
Castille is not alone in his conflict about changing the mandatory retirement age. He is running for retention this year but will turn 70 next year. By 2020 five other Supreme Court justices, under the current rule, must retire.
One, Seamus McCafferty, according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer this March 4, has turned his position into a money-making enterprise. The Philly Democrat is paid $195,309 yearly. He hired his wife, Lise Rapaport, as his chief judicial aide at $75,395 annually.
Justice McCafferty has been a Supreme since January, 2008. His wife is licensed but does not practice active law. She does refer cases to other lawyers. The Inquirer said her most recent of 18 referral fees was $821,000 from a settlement in a medical malpractice case.
Senility is not an issue in the Federal courts. All judicial appointments at that level are for life.