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Pennsylvania Supreme Court opening could empower Senate Democrats

| Thursday, April 18, 2013, 11:55 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Senate Democrats, largely shut out of budget talks the past two years, may enter budget season with clout.

The minority party has something Republican Gov. Tom Corbett needs: votes for a Supreme Court nominee.

Republicans control the Senate 27-23. A nominee for the high court would need 34 votes for confirmation, two-thirds rather than a simple majority.

“It is clear that only a bipartisan process will result in the smooth and expeditious confirmation of a new justice,” said Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County.

Leach on Thursday suggested Corbett choose from among five Republican judges to avoid a protracted, negative political debate.

“Given the political climate in the state … it would be easy for the process to quickly deteriorate into partisan bickering and stalemate,” said Leach, whose list included Superior Court President Judge Correale Stevens and Delaware County Judge Kathrynann Durham, both former GOP lawmakers.

A seat on the high court will open next month when suspended Justice Joan Orie Melvin is sentenced May 7 for theft and related charges. Melvin has said she will resign May 1.

Corbett has said he plans to nominate an interim justice within 90 days of Melvin's resignation. A confirmed interim justice would serve until voters elect someone in 2015 to a full 10-year term. Corbett could delay the appointment until after the budget season.

With their own ideas about crafting a budget, a robust transportation plan and expanding Medicaid, Democrats could influence major issues before lawmakers' summer recess after June 30, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College. It takes 26 votes to pass a bill in the Senate.

“The Republicans can't lose two votes. If they do, they can't pass a budget,” Madonna said. “They can only lose one.”

“We think the issues stand on their own,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said Thursday. “We may never get to a Supreme Court justice before June 30th. We may not be able to reach a consensus.”

Senate Democrats have a “clear purpose,” Costa said — jump-starting the economy and money for public education.

He and other Senate Democrats say creating jobs, strengthening social services and modernizing the state liquor system are important. Corbett has proposed liquor store divestiture and privatization.

Other pending appointments that interest Senate Democrats: seats on the Liquor Control Board, the Turnpike Commission and the Public Utility Commission.

Corbett's “hope is his nominee for the Supreme Court will be an up-or-down vote on the merits of the nomination, not on other issues,” said spokesman Kevin Harley.

Chief Justice Ronald Castille has said the six justices could appoint someone to fill the seventh seat, although that appears unlikely. That would not require Senate confirmation.

Legal experts expect Corbett to act swiftly.

“There have been too many 3-to-3 ties. We need a full bench,” said John Burkoff, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh law school.

“Without any inside information whatever, my impression of Gov. Corbett is that he is a pretty straightforward guy,” said Duquesne University law school professor Bruce Ledewitz. “So I believe, out of concern that the court has already been crippled for too long, he will act in an expedited fashion.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or

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