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Nominee for Pennsylvania Supreme Court Withdraws Name

BULLETIN: Judge Thomas Kistler announced on Monday he was withdrawing his name from consideration for a Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacancy, according to the Centre Daily Times. He alluded to circumstances that have newly altered the legal system in Centre County.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s state Supreme Court nominees, Duquesne University School of Law Dean Ken Gormley and Centre County President Judge Thomas Kistler, are facing a swirl of controversy.

News accounts said Judge Kistler was getting scrutiny over an email that he apparently forwarded with what critics questioned as a racially insensitive email. According to, “An image in the email, bearing the message ‘Merry Christmas from the Johnsons,’ showed an African-American couple hugging for the camera in a prison visitation scene.”

Gormley was facing questions involving a lawsuit filed against him and the university by a female law professor, which was settled, and its terms were not disclosed. News coverage about the nominees’ possible troubles appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Tribune-Review, The Patriot-News and The Centre Daily Times. Judge Kistler Read more

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Change in Store for Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Change is on the docket for Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court in 2015, as voters decide who will fill the three seats in question, and possibly raise the mandatory retirement age for judges.

After three judges retired last year – two in scandal and one as a retiree – then Governor Corbett nominated Justice Correale Stevens to fill one of the seats. The two others are still empty, but the Allentown Morning Call reports that Governor Wolf plans to fill the other two with interim judges soon. The wisdom of appointing two judges to the bench is being debated throughout the state, because his nominees would likely only serve until after the November election. Patriot News reports that although The Court would welcome any temporary colleagues, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor said they are “perfectly capable of operating with five justices for a one-year period.

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What is the Cost of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Scandal?

An American Law Journal feature on “The Cost of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Scandal and Judges Behaving Badly” includes interviews of guests including Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner group.

“The porn emails got the headlines,” says Marks, referring to the latest scandal (see Gavel Grab), “but that was just the tip of the iceberg.” PMC is advocating for a switch from judicial elections to merit selection of judges in Pennsylvania. A Legal Intelligencer article about the show is available through Google.

Thanks to the How Appealing blog, a YouTube video of the show is available for viewing by clicking here.

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Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Drops Appeal


Former Justice Joan Orie Melvin

Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin has dropped her appeal and has begun serving her sentence, according to an article by the Associated Press. Her sentence on public corruption charges includes sending apology letters to other state judges and three years of house arrest. (For more background see Gavel Grab.)

Melvin has submitted drafted apology letters, but has been met with contention by District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. “[A]ttempting to deflect blame for her actions to members of her staff can hardly be considered an apology,” Zappala said. His concerns deal with a specific paragraph in Melvin’s draft that reads, “In reflection, I wish I had been more diligent in my supervision of my staff and that I had given them more careful instructions with respect to the prohibition on political activity.” Zappala has forwarded his comments to the sentencing judge, but no response has been received.

Melvin was convicted of using her judicial staffers, who are paid with taxpayer money, for her own state Supreme Court campaigns. This scandal involving the court has been quickly followed by another which resulted in the resignation of Justice Seamus McCaffery, leading some to question the process of electing judges.

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Time of Uncertainty for Pennsylvania Supreme Court

The sudden retirement this week of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, who was dragged down by a pornographic email scandal, and the upcoming age-required retirement of Chief Justice Ronald Castille will create two openings on the court to be filled temporarily by gubernatorial appointment.

All told, three open seats on the seven-member court will be up for election next year and a “stampede” of high court candidates is expected to run, the Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, Justice McCaffery’s retirement may leave the state Supreme Court without a tie-breaking vote for the rest of 2014.

There have been numerous calls for a switch to merit selection of top judges in the wake of the recent scandal (see Gavel Grab). In one of the latest, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial declared, “Where’s the merit? Another bad justice leaves the state’s top court/And it’s time to say good riddance to the system of electing judges in Pennsylvania.”

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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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