Three open seats, history, on Pa. Supreme Court

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Wrongdoing plus retirement equals history for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

It is the oldest court in the land and it’s believed for the first time ever there will be three open seats in one election, which will be held November 3.

And many could argue that the Supreme Court needs fresh blood. Pennsylvania’s high court has been laid low in recent years.

Justice Joan Orie Melvin resigned after a corruption conviction.

Justice Seamus McCafferey resigned after being linked to pornographic emails.

Sitting Justice Michael Eakin is now ensnared in the same scandal and his future is uncertain.

Former Chief Justice Ron Castille reached the mandatory retirement age.

“Courts depend, to a tremendous extent, on the esteem that the public has for them,” said Michael Dimino, a professor at Widener University Law’s Commonwealth campus. “They don’t have an army, they can’t tax people. The way that courts get people to obey them is through their judgement, their reputation.”

Seven candidates – 3 Republican, 3 Democrat, 1 Independent – are vying for three open seats on the Supreme Court..

Their first debate, Wednesday night at Widener’s Harrisburg campus, was dominated by questions of ethics and the high court’s lapses.

“This is a time of great crisis in our Supreme Court,” said David Wecht (D), a Superior Court judge.

“I believe the Supreme Court is a noble institution that has been beset by human frailty,” said Kevin Dougherty (D), a Philadelphia judge.

“It’s been a disaster,” said Paul Panepinto (I), a Philadelphia judge.

A fundraising record will be set in this campaign for the court and candidates admit that money for judges just doesn’t look good.

“There’s hundreds of thousands of dollars being poured into this race by special interests who have matters before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on a regular basis,” said Mike George (R), an Adams County judge.

“The last thing we need is for people believing that justice can be purchased,” said Judith Olson, (R), a Superior Court judge. “Because it cannot and it should not.”

Wecht actually laid out an ethics platform he’d take to the Supreme Court.

“No more gifts to judges, no more nepotism in the courts, put cameras in the courtroom so people can see what’s done,” Wecht said. He’d also require ethics training for judges and public disclosure of the reason for recusal.

Superior Court judge Christine Donohue, a Democrat, and Commonwealth Court Judge Ann Covey, a Republican, are both looking to leap to the high court.

So is Panepinto who failed to secure the Republican endorsement so he’s running as an independent.

“I believe in justice above politics,” Panepinto said. “We need to clean out our court system of politics.”

Recent headlines would suggest that a cleaning is necessary. It’s now up to voters, who typically ignore such elections, to do the scrubbing.

“In a word they should vote because it matters,” Dimino said. “The choice of judge matters to the outcome of many cases and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decides cases that everybody in Pennsylvania cares about.”

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