Fight looms over Rendell's judicial nominees

April 18, 2008 10:52:29 AM PDT
Republican leaders in the Pennsylvania Senate are sending Gov. Ed Rendell signals that his nominees to fill temporary openings on the state's appellate courts are not acceptable, setting the stage for a potential fight. In a letter Thursday, the Senate's top two Republicans recommended that Rendell withdraw the four nominees and registered several complaints about the picks. Among them, they noted that all four are white men from Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, and that Rendell was passing up an opportunity to diversify the appellate benches among racial, gender and geographic lines.

"We encourage you to withdraw the current package and make a fresh start by joining in a bipartisan collaboration designed to bring the appellate bench to full strength and at the earliest possible time," wrote Sens. Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County and Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County.

The Republicans' position puts them at odds with the Supreme Court's chief justice, Ronald D. Castille, who wrote them in February to vouch for the nominees and ask for speedy confirmation in light of the 3-3 deadlocks that are possible on a Supreme Court that is short one member.

In addition, the Senate GOP's stance on the judicial nominees only lengthens the list of major conflicts, including legislation on health insurance and energy, between the caucus and the second-term Democratic governor.

Rendell showed no willingness Thursday to back down. His press secretary Chuck Ardo said the governor had sent over the names of four highly qualified candidates who had promised not to run for the judicial offices in 2009.

"He expects the Senate to vote on those nominees," Ardo said.

Rendell nominated the four men on Jan. 29, immediately generating a cool reception from the majority Republicans who complained that Rendell had sought, but ignored, their advice on whom to pick.

Two are Democrats, two are Republicans and all but one have served on a state appellate court. Confirmation requires approval of two-thirds of the Senate, and all four have been going office to office to meet with senators. Republicans hold a 29-21 majority in the Senate.

To fill a two-year slot on the Supreme Court, Rendell nominated James Gardner Colins, a college pal who resigned from the Commonwealth Court in January after a 24-year tenure. He was tapped to succeed Ralph J. Cappy, the former chief justice who stepped down Jan. 6.

The other openings are on the lower Superior and Commonwealth courts.

The Senate's 25 legislative days to confirm or reject the nominees will expire in June. Without a vote, the nominees can assume their posts, although the Senate GOP's top lawyer, Stephen C. MacNett, said that scenario is unlikely.

Rendell had intended all four nominees, with Senate confirmation, to serve until 2010, when permanent successors elected in 2009 are sworn in for 10-year terms.

However, in their letter, Scarnati and Pileggi pointed out that one Superior Court nominee, Robert Daniels, recently turned 70, the court's mandatory retirement age. And, repeating a previous criticism, they said Colins might be barred from hearing cases that are appealed to the Supreme Court after he issued decisions on them while on the Commonwealth Court.

Told of that concern in January, Colins said he expected he would have to sit out only a few cases.