Pa. high court's burden

Bob Brady's case adds another load for a court that has been perceived as playing politics.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has long had its issues - tiffs with the legislature, castigation of critics, even the impeachment in the mid-1990s of an errant justice.

But perhaps the most enduring issue has been that it has not always been seen as a bastion of political independence. The decision last year to uphold pay raises for judges - while killing the raise for legislators - only fueled its image as a court too caught up in politics.

Just yesterday, the justices were asked to take another case that promises to test such perceptions: Whether Philadelphia mayoral candidate Bob Brady can stay on the May 15 Democratic primary ballot.

The court already has a plateful of radioactive cases: appeals on casino issues, plus the likelihood of having final say on whether Philadelphia voters can prevent casinos from being built near homes, schools and houses of worship.

The cases are sure to renew the question of whether justices who are elected can shed partisan politics once they are on the bench.

"You're always going to have that perception in an elected system," said Center City lawyer Robert C. Heim, chairman of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a group that advocates appointing judges instead of electing them.

The seven Supreme Court justices who would rule on Brady's petition and other pending cases include three Democrats and four Republicans. In January, that lineup could change - and the campaign for two seats on the court is marked by unusual drama.

Four Democrats and three Republicans are seeking nomination in a race that could be the most expensive in the court's history.

Candidates are crisscrossing the state on the campaign trail - making nice with party leaders, raising gobs of money, and hoping voters like them.

Many judges say they abhor this process. And at times, "the judge who got elected was the one judge that the bar association deemed least qualified," said University of Pennsylvania law professor Alan M. Lerner.

Then there are the pay-raise aftershocks. Supreme Court justices routinely won reelection until 2005, when Russell M. Nigro was swept from office in the wave of outrage that began when legislators voted pay raises for themselves and the state's judges.

And that was before Nigro's court even considered the case.

This year, Justice Thomas G. Saylor, a Republican, is seeking a second 10-year term. The others are Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy and Max Baer, both Democrats, and Republicans Ronald D. Castille, J. Michael Eakin, and James J. Fitzgerald 3d, a former Philadelphia judge who was just confirmed to the high court this week. He and Cynthia A. Baldwin, a Democrat, were appointed on an interim basis to serve until January.

Tim Potts, cofounder of Democracy Rising PA, a citizens group working for more accountability in state government, says voters are not fond of judges right now - especially on the high court.

"I wouldn't want to be Tom Saylor," said Potts, recalling how a crowd of central Pennsylvania retirees advocated "throw them all out" when he spoke about judicial races recently.

Potts said the pay-raise decision fueled the discontent. "Nobody trusts that court decisions are based on merit," he said.

The pay-raise flap stems from legislators' wee-hours 2005 passage of the bill raising their own pay and that of judges across the state. Four months later - after a voter uprising that included Nigro's ouster - the legislature repealed the raises.

A group of judges sued, and last year the high court ruled the legislators' raises unconstitutional. But the justices reinstated raises for 1,000 judges - including themselves. The court said the state constitution bars judicial salary cuts.

One of the harshest critics of that ruling - he called the court corrupt - was Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He has traveled the state taking up what he says are needed court reforms, and a justice has hit back.

A letter surfaced Wednesday from Castille, the former Philadelphia district attorney. He had written to a law-school colleague of Ledewitz's, declining an invitation to the school's event honoring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. Castille said Duquesne was providing a forum for someone who makes "irresponsible charges" against Castille's court.

In the letter, Castille accused Ledewitz of violating lawyers' rules of conduct and suggested the professor be sanctioned. This set off criticism of Castille in the state Senate committee where the letter surfaced; its chairman talked of subpoenas.

Ledewitz said he believes he is on safe ground - though he said he was buoyed by an offer from the ACLU this week to represent him if disciplinary charges are filed. "There is free speech," he said.

L. Stuart Ditzen, the court's spokesman, said it was unfortunate that the justices had been swept up in public reaction to the pay raises.

Ditzen called Cappy a "very progressive chief justice" who was implementing such steps as statewide computerizing of records, increased availability of court interpreters, and accelerated placement of dependent children in Family Court cases.

Lawyers who follow the court say it has evolved from the years of scandal that led to the impeachment and 1994 removal of Justice Rolf Larsen. They say justices are prepared and attentive during arguments, and decide cases more efficiently than in the past.

Heim recalled a hot-button case a few years ago in which friends predicted he would lose because the court would break along partisan lines. Instead, he boasted, "We won, 7 to 0."

The Philadelphia Bar Association's chancellor, Jane Dalton, said she thinks the court is shedding its political image. "I think that there were times in the past, when the court was not of the same composition, that it . . . was probably much more political than it is today," she said.

Ledewitz - undeterred by Castille's letter - disagreed.

"This is a serious problem," the law professor said. "All you need is one pay-raise decision perceived by the public as biased and not impartial, and the public will not believe anything you do in a gambling referendum case."


Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.