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John Baer: Did state court, Legislature play for pay? Is this Pa.?

ALAWSUIT FILED this week tied to the 2005 legislative pay grab is a walk down memory lane - or maybe a peek under the rock of state politics.

ALAWSUIT FILED this week tied to the 2005 legislative pay grab is a walk down memory lane - or maybe a peek under the rock of state politics.

I can't let it alone.

If it's true, it means that the fix is in on stuff of statewide significance.

If untrue, it still feeds the fears of those who think the fix is in.

Either way, it can't help the image of the state court system.

And the state court system is striking back, threatening retaliation.

Ah, Pennsylvania.

The League of Women Voters, in a 17-page federal civil action, alleges that in its challenge to the state's 2004 gambling law, its right to due process was violated by a too-cozy, inappropriate relationship between the Legislature and the state judiciary.

The suit quotes an incumbent (but unnamed) state senator as saying that the Supreme Court struck a deal with the Legislature in 2005 for a big pay raise for judges in exchange for upholding the constitutionality of the gambling law - and suggests that bargaining on other issues is part of the state's judicial culture. It refers to such bargaining as secret "brass-knuckles negotiations."

It quotes the state's then-chief justice, Ralph Cappy (though without direct attribution), as telling members of one of the four legislative caucuses that he "needed the pay raise to secure the votes of Republican justices" on cases important to lawmakers.

In other words, good old-fashioned insider trading.

Cappy, now in private law practice in Pittsburgh, declined to talk directly about the allegation, but released a statement yesterday calling the charge "preposterous" and saying, "I intend to defend myself vigorously in court."

The Legislature passed gambling in July 2004. The league was party to a constitutional challenge to the law in February 2005. The Supreme Court upheld the law on June 22, 2005. And lawmakers passed a raise for all the judges and themselves on July 7, 2005.

Under heavy public pressure, lawmakers later rescinded their raises. Judges kept theirs.

The new suit also tags the current chief justice, Ron Castille.

It says that an unnamed House member ran into Castille in the Golden Sheaf restaurant at the Harrisburg Hilton during the pay-raise talks, asked about the gambling case before the court ruled on it and said that Castille had offered a "wink and a nod," interpreted by the lawmaker to mean that the gambling law would be upheld.

I asked if Castille wanted to chat. His office issued a statement: "This court filing is ludicrous in every respect. It is filled with rumors, innuendo, hearsay and rank speculation. It relies on nameless, faceless individuals who make false allegations behind a screen of anonymity, but apparently lack the courage to come forth and speak publicly."

The statement also says that "what is far more serious is that this lawsuit slanders" the entire court and its former chief, and that those filing it "may have subjected themselves to sanctions, and the attorney [for the League] may have subjected himself to disciplinary action."

That attorney, Paul Rossi of Lancaster County, told me yesterday, "Justices are too cozy with the Legislature . . . all we want is somebody to tell these guys you can't negotiate like this."

Rossi is seeking a jury trial at which unnamed lawmakers would testify.

There are lots of questions here, not least of which is whether this suit gets very far.

Federal courts generally aren't inclined to play in state issues. A similar though broader suit filed by Common Cause in 2006 failed in one federal court and is pending appeal in another.

But for Pennsylvania, there's nothing in here that strikes me as a stretch.

And the fundamental question of whether we have separation of powers or collusion of the powerful is a critical one. It should be answered. *

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