(134) Most politicos know that PA Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille seeks retention on the November ballot. Many of those who know are trying to defeat him.
So much attention is focused on Castille that few are aware Justice Max Baer also wants retained. Republican Castille is from Philadelphia and Democrat Baer from Allegheny County.
Under existing laws the terms they seek have different length. Judges must retire at age 70 unless the Supreme Court is able to creatively establish something more to the Justices liking. Voters seldom reject judges seeking another full 10-year term.
In Castille’s case however, he turns 70 in 2014 and therefore would be limited to one-year retention. Baer, if he wins, does not “term out” (reach age 70) until 2017. He can be on the bench for four more years.
Two more Supremes also face mandatory retirement soon – Thomas Saylor in 2016 and J. Michael Eakin in 2018. Under current rules they cannot even run for another term.
Seamus McCaffery is eligible to run for retention in 2017 but will reach age 70 in 2020.
Five of the six current Supremes, all white males, will need an extension of the mandatory 70 retirement age to complete existing or terms to be determined at this year’s election. With a straight face all have pledged to hear the case on judicial retirement without regard to personal benefit by the decision.
That leaves Debra Todd who must run for retention in 2017, but will be able to serve the full 10-year term beyond. The seventh Supreme Court seat is vacant with the resignation this spring of Joan Orie Melvin, following conviction of election corruption.
News services reported recently that PA Gov. Tom Corbett intends to submit Correale Stevens to the state senate for confirmation to the vacant slot. Stevens is currently president judge of the PA Superior Court, triggering another appointment. Reportedly, Stevens, who turns 70 in 2016, would not seek a full term at the 2015 election.
Stevens is expected to get the two-thirds vote needed for confirmation. A Republican, he will once again give the highest state court a 4-3 edge to his party. At the least, politics was never talked about as a factor in a court’s makeup. That no longer prevails in today’s jaded world.
Even Castille lamented there were too many upcoming contentious cases for his court to be sitting there split 3-3.
This year’s retention election could be a prelude to a massive revolt by the voters at the 2015 election. The scenario could play out this way.
Castille is in trouble. Some say he is dictatorial and feuds with other Justices. Others claim he runs a loose ship and each Justice operates a fiefdom. Regardless, several activist groups say they will deny Castille another term.
If Castille is vulnerable, so is Baer, merely by association. Few have any bone to pick with Baer. He won a first term in 2003 in a campaign managed by skilled tactician John Marshall. Marshall, a campaign pro in those days, now works for the Federal government. Without Marshall, Baer is added to the endangered species list.
As recently as 2005 Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro, Philadelphia Democrat, was voted out of office 51 to 49 percent. He was the first PA appellate court judge to lose a retention race in over 200 years the judicial system has existed here. Another Supreme, Philly Republican Sandra Newman, only won retention 54-46 percent in the same year.
Newman retired after only one year of her new term at the age of 68, supposedly.
In most judicial retention races about three-quarters or more of the voters cast a “Yes” vote. Earlier in 2005 the state legislature slapped an amendment to a non-related bill and passed it at 2 o’clock in the morning. The amendment gave lawmakers, judges and other elected officials hefty pay raises. A public outcry forced the legislature to rescind their raises. The hike for Supremes ($150,000 to $171,000) stuck however.
BOTTOM LINE: Scandals, numerous yet minor in scope, have plagued the PA judiciary for decades. Voters are growing increasingly impatient. If that backlash is detected at the polls this year, attempts will be made to begin appointing all judges.