HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory recently.
A pornographic email scandal caused one justice to quit and a second one to accuse him of making threats. Another left the court in disgrace after being convicted of using government staff to campaign.
Voters will soon get a chance to render their own verdict on the seven-member court, as three spots are up for election next year. Ambitious lawyers and lower-level judges are lining up to make sure there will be choices.
Three Democrats on Superior Court have confirmed they are running, and at least nine other names are floating around in the state’s political world as potential candidates.
Among them is Justice Corry Stevens, a Luzerne County Republican who was appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett last year after Justice Joan Orie Melvin resigned to face sentencing in her public corruption case.
Stevens said he has been gauging support while balancing a particularly heavy workload. The Supreme Court has cases to wrap up before Chief Justice Ron Castille retires at the end of next month, having reached the mandatory age limit of 70.
“In spite of all the stuff going on, we have a lot of cases, and a lot of them have to be done before Justice Castille leaves,” Stevens said.
The state House and Senate took the first steps last year toward a constitutional amendment that would let judges serve until age 75, a proposal that could go before voters as early as next spring. Its passage is particularly important for older potential candidates like Stevens, who is 68.
Superior Court judges who confirmed this week that they are running are Democrats Anne Lazarus, David Wecht and Christine Donohue.
Another Superior Court judge, Republican John Bender, said he hoped to run.
“If I call the leadership of the Republican Party and they say, ‘No, we hate you,’ I might not run,” Bender said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
At least two other Superior Court judges might be considering joining the pack but did not respond to phone messages seeking comment. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Dwayne Woodruff — a former Steelers cornerback — told the Philadelphia Daily News last week he was weighing whether to run but also did not return a message.
Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge John Foradora said he had family priorities — and logistical challenges — to sort out before deciding.
“I don’t want to be involved in all this money raising and special interest stuff that’s put a cloud over the court. But I also don’t know how to get my message out without it,” the Democrat said. “There’s got to be a way that doesn’t look so distasteful to the public.”
Another potential candidate is Democrat Mike Scott, a partner in the firm Reed Smith, who expects to decide in the next few weeks.
The court currently has six members: Castille, Stevens, Michael Eakin and Tom Saylor, all Republicans; and Max Baer and Debra Todd, the Democrats.
There is one vacancy, a seat held until last month by Democrat Seamus McCaffery, who announced his immediate retirement shortly after he was implicated in sending and receiving emails with pornographic and other explicit content. Eakin accused McCaffery of trying to coerce him siding with him against Castille in the scandal. McCaffery denied that he threatened Eakin but apologized for participating in the email exchanges.
The governor and state lawmakers could temporarily fill the Castille and McCaffery openings in the coming months with justices who will serve until the end of 2015.
In next year’s judicial elections, the high court’s public image and integrity will figure significantly in the debate.
“Any and all recommendations to improve the court, whether improving transparency, showing that you’re not beholden to anybody, I guess proving that you’re independent, highly qualified — I think all of those are going to be on the radar screen,” said Lynn Marks with the court reform advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.
Wecht said the Supreme Court should project values of judicial service and solid decision-making and “not a reputation for conflict and rancor.”
“I do think there is certainly a perception among members of the public that there are problems that need to be addressed,” he said.
Public interest in judicial elections is normally low, and a major factor in the races could be 2015 contests for mayor of Philadelphia and for Allegheny County executive, both areas with comparatively high concentrations of Democrats that could skew turn-out in favor of candidates with ties to those areas.
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