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Conflict at Divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Allegations of wrongdoing are threatening to cast a cloud over the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. One justice, Seamus McCaffery, “acknowledged sending sexually explicit messages from a personal account,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, and a divided court is weighing action.

There’s more to the messy and still-unfolding story. Justice McCaffery has labeled a push for his suspension by Chief Justice Ronald Castille as part of a “vindictive pattern attacks” on McCaffery, according to the Inquirer.

And Justice J. Michael Eakin, the Inquirer said, “was shown to have been sent pornographic and racially tinged e-mails on an anonymous private account”; the article said Justice Eakin “reported himself to the Judicial Conduct Board.” He “accused McCaffery of threatening to release the sexually explicit emails in Read more

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Reported Under FBI Investigation

Justice Seamus P. McCaffery of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is under FBI investigation, a Philadelphia Inquirer article said. At issue is the payment of  referral fees to his wife, Lise Rapaport, who has been his chief aide for “most of the past 16 years,” the newspaper said.

She made referrals to personal-injury firms, the Inquirer reported. Separately, it said a federal investigation of the Municipal Court in Philadelphia is in progress.

A lawyer for Rapaport and for Justice McCaffery labeled as “complete nonsense” the idea that there was a federal investigation and said Justice McCaffery has not done anything that was improper.

Ex-Justice Joan Orie Melvin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently was sentenced to three consecutive one-year terms of house arrest. She was convicted of corruption in the conduct of her two campaigns for the high court (see Gavel Grab).

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Suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Resigns

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin submitted her resignation on Monday. The justice, who was suspended earlier from the court, was convicted by a jury last month of public corruption charges arising from two Supreme Court campaigns.

Justice Melvin said she intends to pursue an appeal of her conviction. “In the meantime, however, the citizens of Pennsylvania deserve a fully-staffed Supreme Court,” she wrote in  her resignation letter, according to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article.

She was facing possible impeachment proceedings in the Pennsylvania House. Her resignation is to become effective May 1.

Following her conviction, calls have risen for Pennsylvania to switch from partisan elections to an appointive selection system for choosing judges. To learn about four former governors endorsing the appointive path, see Gavel Grab.

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'Sea Change' Possible on Pennsylvania Supreme Court?

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who will turn 70 next year, will seek retention election despite a rule requiring retirement at that age. The rule is facing a challenge in court.

A Philadelphia Inquirer article about Justice Castille’s plans went further to frame them in a context of possible sweeping change for the court. As many as six of its seven justices could depart within eight years if the retirement age is not changed and if a suspended justice who faces criminal charges, Joan Orie Melvin, is removed.

“It would be a real sea change,” said Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a JAS partner group.

While organized opposition to Justice Castille is not expected, he is concerned that he might have to put time into campaign fundraising for the first time, given the increased politicization of high court elections.

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Weighs Voter ID Law

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court heard vigorous oral arguments on Thursday over the constitutionality of a controversial state law requiring voter identification at the polls.

State courts have become a hot new battleground for foes of voter-identification laws, and given the stakes in a presidential election year, the oral arguments in Pennsylvania drew national media attention.

“The outcome of Thursday’s hearing could have significant consequences to the November elections as opponents of the law argue that it disproportionately affects racial minorities and other groups that favor president Obama,” CBS News reported.

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How Much Will It Cost Me If I Want To Sit on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court?

The numbers are in and, as expected, Pennsylvania has broken its own fundraising records. Four candidates – Democrats Seamus McCaffery and Debra Todd and Republicans Mike Krancer and Maureen Lally-Green — for two open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court raised a combined total of $6,670,538. Each candidate raised well over one million dollars for the contests, which were held this November.

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Ex-Supreme Court Justice Submits Appeal in Pennsylvania

Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, convicted of public corruption counts in her campaigns for the high court, contends in an appeal that the trial judge in her case was biased against her.

“Through his words and actions, the trial court regularly and repeatedly communicated to the jury his belief that the charges against Orie Melvin had substantial merit and that her defense was not worthy of credence,” said her appeal brief filed with the Pennsylvania Superior Court, according to The Associated Press.

Orie Melvin was sentenced to three years in house arrest and a $55,000 fine.

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Column: Pennsylvania's Highest Court in a 'Supreme Mess'

Short one justice and with another who may have to retire due to age restrictions, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is in a sticky situation, according to a Philadelphia Daily News column by John Baer.

Seven justices typically sit on the bench, but Justice Joan Orie Melvin was suspended last May, leaving only six to decide cases. Melvin resigned from the court this wek after being convicted earlier this year on public corruption charges (see Gavel Grab).

If the justices decide any case on a three-three vote, the decision is “meaningless,” and the lower court decision would stand, Baer says.

Chief Justice Ron Castille is currently 69 years old, and may have to step down soon since Pennsylvania’s constitution decrees that “judges retire at 70.” The requirement is currently being challenged in court. Read more

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In Pennsylvania, Renewed Calls for Shift to Merit Selection

supreme_seal_colorAfter the Pennsylvania Supreme Court suspended Justice Seamus McCaffery amid allegations of sending pornographic emails (see Gavel Grab), the entire episode has sparked extensive media commentary including calls for reform.

“Isn’t it time we stopped electing appellate and Supreme Court judges?” said a Pottstown Mercury editorial with the headline, “Shameful actions of justices stain state Supreme Court.” It continued, “It would be better to follow the federal example and come up with a merit selection process that has reasonable checks and balances.” It said both gubernatorial candidates back merit selection.

Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a JAS partner organization advocating for merit selection, told a CBS affiliate, “We’ve received many calls in the past week asking for change.” She added, “Judges should be selected based on their personal integrity and legal qualifications. What you want is a fair and impartial judge, not somebody who got there because they campaigned their way in or because they were a good fundraiser.” Read more

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Pennsylvania Justice McCaffery is Suspended From Bench

Justice McCaffery

Justice McCaffery

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Monday suspended with pay one of its justices, Seamus McCaffery. The vote followed his apology for sending sexually explicit e-mails, which he had described as private and personal.

Pennsylvania’s Judicial Conduct Board, which has begun an investigation, was ordered by the court to decide in 30 days if there is probable cause for bringing formal misconduct charges, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article. Read more

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