Pennsylvania's lame duck governor loses showdown with Senate Republicans over judicial picks
A vacancy in the office of justice, judge or justice of the peace shall be filled by appointment by the Governor. The appointment shall be with the advice and consent of two-thirds of the members elected to the Senate …
— Article V, Section 13, Paragraph (b) of the Pennsylvania Constitution
If it wasn't for that "advice and consent" clause giving the state Senate the final say on judicial nominees, Pennsylvania would have a full complement of seven justices on the state Supreme Court and three fewer vacancies on appellate courts.
But the Pennsylvania Senate rejected all four court nominees by Gov. Ed Rendell on May 14 by a vote of 26-24, with three Republicans joining the 21 Democrats. (Republicans hold a 29-21 majority in the Senate.)
The three defectors — Sens. Stewart Greenleaf of Montgomery County, John Eichelberger of Blair County and Jeffrey Piccola of Dauphin County — didn't really matter because of the two-thirds rule in the Constitution.
The GOP smackdown of Rendell's nominees came despite a plea by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, a Republican, to fill the vacancies immediately. Castille fears that a six-member Supreme Court could end up with a 3-3 tie on major cases.
The reason the Republican majority gave for rejecting Rendell's nominees was that they were tired of seeing middle-aged white guys from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh sitting on Pennsylvania courts. The four Rendell picks were white men — three from Philadelphia and one from Pittsburgh.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, told The Associated Press that Rendell broke established practice and his constitutional duty when he did not take the advice of the Senate GOP on the nominees.
"The governor has chosen to ignore the constitutional directive that he make judicial nominations with the advice and consent of the Senate," Pileggi said in comments on the Senate floor reported by the AP.
The Senate wants to see some diversity in the courts, Pileggi said. In other words, more women and minorities, and some lawyers from outside Philadelphia and Pittsburgh should be serving on the state's appeals courts.
The rejected nominees were James Gardner Colins, a Democrat from Philadelphia and former Commonwealth Court president judge, for the vacancy on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court; two Philadelphia Republicans, James Fitzgerald and Robert Daniels, for the Superior Court; and Democrat Ken Gormley of Pittsburgh for the Commonwealth Court.
Rendell's spokesman said he wasn't sure what the governor would do next.
Both sides make persuasive arguments in the dispute.
The state courts should be at full strength (and the appointments are only until the next judicial elections in 2009, with newly elected judges taking office in 2010).
The GOP argument about more diversity is also a good one. The courts are full of politically connected lawyers from big law firms in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Last time I checked there were 65 other counties in Pennsylvania and there's bound to be a decent lawyer or two to pick from the rest of the state.
But the showdown comes down to a political smackdown of Gov. Ed Rendell by the Senate Republicans. They rejected his nominees because they could.
Rendell is a lame duck who is losing political strength every day he is in office during his second term. Republicans flexed their muscles. They kicked sand in Rendell's face … and he can't do anything about it.
Tony Phyrillas is a leading conservative political columnist and blogger based in Pennsylvania. He is a veteran journalist with 25 years experience as a reporter, editor and columnist for several newspapers. Phyrillas received recognition for column writing in 2010 from the Associated Press Managing Editors, in 2007 from Suburban Newspapers of America and in 2006 from the Society of Professional Journalists, Keystone Chapter. A graduate of Penn State University, Phyrillas is the city editor and political columnist for The Mercury, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper in Pottstown, Pa. In addition to The Mercury website (www.pottsmerc.com), his columns are featured on more than a dozen political websites and blogs. Phyrillas is a frequent guest (and occasional host) on talk radio and has been a panelist on the "Journalists Roundtable" public affairs TV program on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN). Phyrillas was named one of the '10 Leading Greek-American Bloggers in the World' in 2007 by Odyssey: The World of Greece magazine. BlogNetNews.com ranked Phyrillas the Most Influential Political Blogger in Pennsylvania for three consecutive years (2007-2010). You can follow Phyrillas on Twitter @TonyPhyrillas