With the potential for an increased number of 3-3 split decisions on the state's Supreme Court when Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille leaves the bench this year, some legal observers — including former justices — say there will be a sense of urgency in the coming months to rule on pending cases.
However, other members of the legal community maintain that since the court has operated with only six justices before, it is more than capable of keeping up its current level of efficiency in making decisions.
Justice Castille, who turns 70 this year, must step down from the high court at the end of the year under the court's mandatory retirement rule.
In an interview, he said the risk of split decisions on the court is always a valid concern.
"It's hard to tell right now if the court will have a problem reaching a consensus," he said.
Former Justice Sandra Schultz Newman noted, however, that Justice Castille's departure could have a serious impact on the court.
"A vacancy affects the court tremendously. It's much harder to get opinions out," she said. "It's really a disaster when you have an even court."
Of her time on the court, Justice Newman said the justices would "absolutely pick up the pace. When we knew someone was retiring or leaving we would try to get opinions decided before they leave."
William H. Lamb, a former justice and attorney at Lamb McErlane in West Chester, Pa., said that during his tenure, the court was sensitive to time constraints in the face of an impending vacancy.
He added, "There may be a problem with a six-member court in that you increase your workload — I think that it's very true that there is a desire to get work done knowing that if it isn't done by Dec. 31, it may not be done soon thereafter."
For his part, Justice Castille said the court works hard when it has an even number of members to avoid those stalemates.
In order to reduce the risk of splits in the court, Justice Castille said, "What we've done in 3-3 courts, and cases that look like they're going to be 3-3 cases, is discuss them" with the justices of opposing viewpoints. "We talk to certain justices to see if they'll rethink their position. We have been able to eliminate a lot of 3-3 [decisions] just by talking."
Another issue the court will face is the appointment of a potentially inexperienced interim justice to fill his vacancy.
"The court's learning curve at this level is long and steep," Justice Castille said, noting that a justice with little experience would affect the court's opinion production.
"I average 20 opinions a year and that will fall off dramatically after I leave," Justice Castille said of his effect on the court's output. "Joan Orie Melvin had seven. That shows you the difference between experience and [new]."
Despite the relatively short amount of time he has remaining, Castille said the court would be able to complete most of the administrative projects it currently has under way, including: reform of the state's constable system; review of domestic-relations filing fees; and seeing the completion of the family court building in Philadelphia.
Justice Correale F. Stevens said that the court is not currently accelerating its pace in deciding cases to brace for a short-handed court.
"From my perspective, we're always trying to get out cases thoroughly and timely and not short-cutting or anything like that. There's a lot of work that goes into each case. Obviously the cases that the chief is getting will take priority ... it will be business as usual this year," he said.
P.J. D'Annunzio: email@example.com or 215-557-2315. Read more stories like this at www.legalintelligencer.com.