Senators must cooperate to confirm court nominee
HARRISBURG - One of the features that distinguishes the state Senate from the House of Representatives will be front and center during the next several months.
This is the Senate's power to confirm nominees of the governor to important state posts. The Senate will face one of its most important confirmation votes in years once the May 1 resignation of convicted Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin takes effect.
Convicted last month of corruption charges, Melvin announced her resignation this week to spare herself an impeachment proceeding to remove her from office.
Gov. Tom Corbett said he will nominate an interim justice to fill the vacancy until January 2016 when a successor elected in 2015 would take office.
The governor's nominee will need a two-thirds vote or 34 senators to get confirmed. This means a measure of bipartisan cooperation is needed. Republicans control the chamber 27-23 with Democrats in the minority. That means at least seven Democrats must vote yes if all the GOP senators go along with Corbett's nominee.
The Supreme Court is currently split 3-3 along party lines with major cases involving the 2014 reapportionment of state legislative seats, the fate of the voter identification law and local government zoning jurisdiction under the natural gas drilling impact fee law before it. The last two cases involve polarizing issues that have attracted considerable public interest.
Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille wants the vacancy filled as soon as possible. He said it would be pointless for the court to come down with tie decisions in major cases because it would set no legal precedent or provide any guidance to attorneys.
So if the confirmation process goes smoothly, a new justice could be on the bench in time to tip the outcome on the three outstanding cases one way or the other. If the process drags on, Justice Castille could try to convince his colleagues to appoint a senior justice as a placeholder.
Melvin was elected as a Republican in 2009 so theoretically the seat is considered a GOP one. But an overtly partisan or conservative nominee of Melvin's stripe wouldn't get the necessary Democratic votes.
The whole process may boil down to what an agreement on the word "moderate" means.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-43, Pittsburgh, suggested a judicial nominee should be more moderate, have judicial experience and a career background that fits with the job. He is asking Corbett to bring his caucus into the nomination process.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-25, Venango County, may have his own thoughts since he helped write the impact fee law.
With the names of middle-aged white men turning up in the nominee speculation, Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-7, Philadelphia, suggested that diversity should be another watchword.
(Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)