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In catbird seat on Melvin's successor

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Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Jay Costa has weathered some tough political storms as minority leader of the state Senate, but there is a break in the clouds. When Democrats picked up three Senate seats in the last election, Costa found himself in the catbird seat.

The governor will nominate a state Supreme Court justice to replace Joan Orie Melvin, but the Senate must confirm by a two-thirds vote. Costa, with 23 Democrats compared with 27 Republicans, has enough of a buffer to secure a proverbial seat at the table.

This at least means Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's nominee is not likely to be a strident partisan or from his party's far right wing. And Costa has a few nominees in mind that should be acceptable to Corbett and 34 Senate Democrats and Republicans, the threshold for confirmation.

Former federal prosecutor Steve Chanenson, a Villanova law professor, fits the bill. He chairs the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing and directs the Matthew J. Ryan Law & Public Policy Forum. A Democrat, he was appointed to the commission by three successive governors, including Republicans Corbett and Mark Schweiker.

Renee Caldwell Hughes, a former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge who tried major-crime cases, served on the commission with Chanenson and Costa. She is CEO of the American Red Cross in Southeastern Pennsylvania and would be the high court's only black justice.

Jeffrey Manning, administrative judge of the criminal division in Allegheny County, has a reputation for toughness and fairness. He and Corbett became friends while trying major cases together as young prosecutors, and he remains a trusted Corbett confidant. He does not shy away from tough decisions and would have no learning curve.

Civil litigator and appellate lawyer Mark Aronchick, past Philadelphia Bar Association chancellor, was city solicitor for Mayor William J. Green. An American College of Trial Lawyers fellow, he has served on the civil rules committee of the state Supreme Court.

Barring Costa's suggestions, Linda Kelly, having recently won Senate confirmation to replace Corbett as attorney general, is a Republican who may be acceptable to Senate Democrats. She is credited with moving the Sandusky prosecution forward to conviction and has earned respect as a state and federal prosecutor. A Corbett friend since their days with the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, she is a Costa constituent.

As the 2014 gubernatorial election approaches, any Supreme Court appointment will be subject to never-ending political analysis. Also in this mix are upcoming PUC, LCB and Turnpike Commission vacancies. While governors can usually pick off a couple of opposition-party votes for confirmation, Costa's new margin seems to put that out of reach.

In politics, necessity is often the mother of compromise.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (

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