Pennsylvania's incoming chief justice said last week that one of his priorities would be for the state Supreme Court to be viewed as "totally nonpolitical."

"The last thing you want is a court that is perceived as Republican or Democratic. You just want it perceived as dispensing fair justice," said Justice Ronald D. Castille, former district attorney of Philadelphia, who will be sworn in as chief justice Jan. 14.

The new year will bring a significant change in personnel, as well as leadership, to the state's highest court.

Two newly elected justices are set to join the court early next month, and Gov. Rendell is expected to name an interim justice to replace Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy, who is stepping down.

Castille, a Republican, said he hoped an interim justice would be named quickly so the court can keep pace with its caseload and avoid the possibility of 3-3 votes. "It's difficult to function with just six," he said in the interview Friday.

The elective route to the high court is intensely political - and expensive. The four-way race for the two seats shattered fund-raising records for Pennsylvania high-court contests, as the candidates' campaigns raised more than $5 million.

But Castille said justices tend to become increasingly removed from the world of politics as they immerse themselves in the court's work.

The party registration "kind of goes by the wayside, and you start focusing on the court," said Castille, "and the importance of what we do as a court system."

He wants the court - the oldest appellate court in the nation - to be seen as independent.

"I would like the court to be perceived as totally nonpolitical," he said.

Incoming Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, a Northeast Philadelphia Democrat who won a seat on the court in November, said he agreed that the court must remain above partisan politics.

"The current Supreme Court justices feel strongly about not aligning themselves with any party politics," said McCaffery, who said Castille in particular "takes this seriously."

Indeed, one of the most enduring issues the court has faced over the last two decades is that it has not always been seen as a bastion of political independence.

The court handles a variety of cases that have political dimensions - and the legal and political communities are always looking for signs that political connections hold sway.

The state's 2004 gaming law, which requires the high court to hear virtually all gaming cases from the start, has been a hot potato for the justices.

Castille said the cases had been difficult.

"We're wandering into territory that's not really our expertise," said Castille, who said that trial courts, which generally handle cases at the early stages, might be better suited than an appeals court.

But he said that state legislators "in their wisdom put it in our lap, and we're stuck with it."

The hope, he said, is that "eventually those cases will drop by the wayside as the projects get built or not built."

Until now, the court has had a GOP edge, with four Republicans - Castille, James J. Fitzgerald 3d, Thomas G. Saylor and J. Michael Eakin - and three Democrats: Cappy, Max Baer and Cynthia A. Baldwin.

In January, with Castille as chief, the court will become evenly split - Castille, Saylor and Eakin on the Republican side, and Baer, McCaffery and newly elected Justice Debra Todd of Butler County as the Democrats. So the interim appointee will determine the political balance of the court.

The tradition is for an interim appointment to be of the political party of the departing justice - which would seem to favor a Democrat.

Among those interested are Commonwealth Court President Judge James Gardner Colins, a Philadelphia Democrat who is leaving that court at the end of the year, and Fitzgerald, a Philadelphia Republican whose high-court appointment ends in January. He would like to stay on as an interim justice for Cappy's seat.

"It's something I've dreamed about since my first year in law school," said Colins, 61, who said that serving as justice for two years would be a "nice end" to his judicial career.

Castille will be sworn in as chief justice in a ceremony Jan. 14 at the Supreme Court's courtroom at City Hall. McCaffery, who is moving up from state Superior Court, will be sworn in at an invitation-only event Jan. 4 at the Convention Center. He is expecting about 600 people.

"There will be an inordinate amount of Republican, Democrat and independent voters," said McCaffery, who ran first even in several Western Pennsylvania counties that normally do not favor Philadelphia candidates. "It's a testament to cross-party appeal."

But now that he's beyond the campaign, he said, he is putting politics aside.

"This is not about Seamus McCaffery. This is about the oldest Supreme Court in the United States, even older than the U.S. Supreme Court," said McCaffery, who said justices must work hard to insulate themselves from political interference. "When we're all dead and gone, our legacy is the court, and the institution we leave behind."

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.