By Melissa Daniels PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille called Monday “a sad day” for the judicial system.
One of his former colleagues on the bench, former Justice Joan Orie Melvin, resigned from her seat after a conviction for corruption.
“It reflects poorly on the entire judiciary,” Castille said.
But the ramifications of Orie Melvin’s conviction go beyond her own day in court to the inner workings of the state’s highest judicial body. Without Orie Melvin on the bench, and no replacement on deck, Pennsylvania’s highest court is stuck in a tie with three Republican and three Democratic judges.
This, Castille said, is a problem for everybody.
“I don’t believe we can function as a six-justice court until January 2016,” Castille said, as the next election for the seat is fall 2015.
Castille, while speaking to the Pennsylvania Press Club, called three-three decisions “kind of meaningless.” Justices try to reach consensus, but ties still happen, Castille said.
“It tells you what three people think on one side and it tells you what three people think on the other side,” he said. “It doesn’t set any precedent.”
In cases of a tie, the lower court decision stands. Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said split decisions essentially deprive the parties of an appeal.
“Not only is this unfair to individual litigants, but it prevents the court from developing or explaining new or existing law,” Marks said in an email.
Amanda Smith, a Widener Law associate professor of legal methods, said split decisions can be frustrating for attorneys – especially because the Supreme Court doesn’t take every appeal. Attorneys may decide not to use a split decision while preparing their cases, she said.
“It still has some value, but it would obviously not be as weighty as if you had a majority of the court subscribe to the opinion,” Smith said.
Smith, who clerked for the Supreme Court in 2000, said justices try “very hard” to avoid ties and reach decisions by majority.
But this court has dealt with the three-three deadlock for a while. Orie Melvin was automatically suspended from the court when she was charged in May 2012, and the Court of Judicial Discipline froze her salary in August.
Prior to Orie Melvin’s resignation, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers were prepping impeachment proceedings.
The vacancy will be effective May 1. The seat can be filled if Corbett makes an interim appointment confirmed by two-thirds of the state Senate. That would require all Senate Republicans and eight Democrats to get behind Corbett’s pick, who would serve until an elected judge takes office in 2016.
Alternatively, the Supreme Court could make an appointment that doesn’t require confirmation, but, rather, a majority vote.
Corbett, in a media statement, said he plans to submit a nominee to the Senate “as soon as is practical” within a 90-day timeframe after May 1.
He called Orie Melvin’s decision “the correct one,” and said it saves lawmakers the time and resources associated with an impeachment.
Castille said he wants to see a seventh justice on the bench either way, by confirmation or appointment.
“Until that happens, we’ll still struggle as six justices,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Though the Supreme Court has a bevy of landmark cases before it, one of the most high-profile is the approval of the state’s district maps from the Legislative Reapportionment Commission. In that case, there’s no lower court decision to default to, as the Supreme Court is the only judicial body that must sign off on the maps.
The court already tossed out one version of the maps, saying the districts split up too many municipalities. The second round of maps came before the court in September, and the decision is pending.
Castille said the court will try to avoid a split decision “at all costs.” But he said justices recognize the timeline connected to the redistricting decision, as candidates will have filing deadlines to meet.
“We take cognizance of that as something that has to happen for the election process to happen smoothly,” he said.
And in yet another twist, Orie Melvin said she plans to appeal her conviction. That means she could wind up in front of her former justice colleagues.
Castille said this is a possibility, as the court has a “rule of necessity” — if all justices have a conflict of interest, then all judges can hear a case.
Contact Melissa Daniels at [email protected]