Republican Gov. Tom Corbett will have to reach across the aisle to fill a seventh seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which has been deadlocked for nearly a year.
Suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin submitted her resignation Monday, a month after she was convicted on public corruption charges. She is due to be sentenced May 7 and in a letter to Gov. Corbett, she said "it is with deep regret and a broken heart" that she tendered her resignation, effective May 1.
"It has been my honor and privilege to serve the people of this Commonwealth for the past 28 years, and I am deeply saddened that I am not able to fulfill my commission."
Once the resignation is official, Mr. Corbett will have 90 days to appoint an interim justice to fill her spot on the high court, with the approval of two-thirds of the state Senate. The court is currently split 3-3 between Republicans and Democrats, and Ms. Orie Melvin is a Republican.
In a statement, Mr. Corbett said, "I will submit a nominee to the Senate as soon as practical within that time frame to bring our Supreme Court back to its full complement of seven justices."
A number of high-profile cases are floating in Supreme Court purgatory covering local zoning rules on Marcellus Shale drilling, voter identification requirements, the reapportionment of state legislative lines and other matters. The governor will have to make the pick in a politically sensitive time in which he faces re-election next year and Democrats already are lining up to oppose him.
Thirty-four Senate votes will be required for confirmation, and the GOP has 27. Democrats already have caucused and agreed not to give their votes to any nominee they consider overly partisan or tied to the governor, said Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, the lead Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"There is no reason a Democrat can't be nominated or a Republican that is moderate," Mr. Leach said. He said the appointee should not "have a history of pushing the governor's agenda. There is nothing dishonorable about that, but we don't want it in a Supreme Court justice."
Some possible candidates have surfaced, including William R. Sasso, chairman of Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young's management committee; Michael Krancer, the outgoing secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection; and Stephen Aichele, Mr. Corbett's chief of staff.
Finding the right candidate -- presumably an eminent Republican legal mind who is interested in filling the position but not running for it in 2015 -- will not be easy for the governor, said Duquesne University School of Law professor Bruce Ledewitz.
"With all the attributes this person has to have, there are not many people who can fit this office," he said.
Despite her resignation, Ms. Orie Melvin still plans to appeal her conviction.
A jury Feb. 21 found the justice and her sister Janine Orie guilty of using judicial staff, as well as the staffers of another sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, to work on the Ms. Orie Melvin's campaigns in 2003 and 2009 for the Pennsylvania high court. Ms. Orie Melvin, 56, was found guilty on six of seven counts against her, including conspiracy, theft of services and misapplication of government funds.
Ms. Orie Melvin first joined the bench as a Pittsburgh magistrate in 1985 and in her letter to Mr. Corbett pointed to her work with domestic violence victims and juvenile offenders and her decision to refuse a statewide pay raise. "It is my fervent hope that my service over the past three decades will not be tainted by the circumstances surrounding my departure," she wrote.
Jane Orie was convicted in March 2012 of similar counts to those brought against her sisters -- as well as separate forgery counts related to documents submitted at trial -- and sentenced to 2 1/2 to 10 years in state prison.
With Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus scheduled to sentence the justice May 7, there was a question of when or if Ms. Orie Melvin would resign or be forced off the bench by the judge, the Court of Judicial Discipline or through impeachment. The resignation letter, Mr. Ledewitz said, likely was in part an attempt by her attorneys to have the sentencing judge take it easier on her.
It was not clear why she dated the resignation May 1 instead of earlier. Since the vacancy will occur within 10 months of the next judicial election in November, the governor must find a replacement rather than having the voters decide. The interim justice will serve through the first Monday of January 2016, following the next judicial election in November 2015.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Chief Justice Ronald Castille called Ms. Orie Melvin's resignation "a sad day" for the court. If the governor and Senate do not fill her seat, he said, the remaining six justices could appoint someone in the interim until a new justice is elected to a 10-year term in 2015, though some legal scholars dispute that.
The chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, Kathleen D. Wilkinson, issued a statement Monday urging Mr. Corbett and the Senate to confirm a replacement "as soon as possible ... to ensure unfettered access to justice for the citizens of Pennsylvania."
Tim McNulty: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581. First Published March 26, 2013 4:00 AM