HARRISBURG - Former Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery's decision to retire may have been sudden, but the process of replacing him on the high court will be anything but fast.

On Tuesday, a top Senate Democrat suggested that neither he nor his party were likely to broker any quick deals with Gov. Corbett to fill the seat.

"I don't think it's a good idea to rush this decision," Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) said one day after McCaffery stepped down to halt an ethics probe into his conduct. "The court is really at a crossroads. Public confidence in it is shaken right now. We have to be very careful and thoughtful and deliberate in deciding who to elevate to this position."

Under the state constitution, Corbett has authority to nominate someone to fill McCaffery's seat through next year - and could do so at any time.

But that process will be far from simple, tempered not just by the usual jockeying between Republicans and Democrats, but by political reality: Corbett, a Republican, faces a difficult reelection battle next week, with polls showing him trailing Democrat Tom Wolf.

And the nomination process does not hew to standard voting rules. The constitution requires that it be approved by a two-thirds vote in the 50-member Senate.

The Senate has 27 Republicans and 23 Democrats. Even if he persuaded every GOP senator to back his choice, Corbett would still need to negotiate for at least seven Democratic votes.

Complicating matters is that the Senate only has one meeting day left this year - Nov. 12 - and requires at least 10 days notice of the nominee's name, and a statement of financial interest from that person. Under those rules, if Corbett wanted the upper chamber to vote in two weeks, he would have to submit his choice by Friday.

The governor has been tight-lipped about his plans. His spokesman, Jay Pagni, said Tuesday that Corbett has not settled on whom to nominate or when.

A spokesman for Wolf's campaign said the Democrat believes there is no need to rush through the appointment of an interim replacement. Wolf favors "a deliberative and collaborative process," spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said.

Drew Crompton, legal counsel and chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), said he would be surprised if a decision was made by the end of the week.

"The news is so fresh," Crompton said. "There hasn't been time to develop a list of [potential] names or even to internally vet them."

McCaffery's retirement came nearly a month after he first was swept up in the pornographic e-mail scandal that has toppled other state officials, and at the end of a long and often personal battle with Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille. Last week, Castille persuaded his colleagues to suspend the 64-year-old justice and approve an investigation into his conduct by the Judicial Conduct Board.

After a weekend of negotiations, McCaffery, a onetime Philadelphia police officer and Municipal Court judge, agreed to step down. In return, the conduct board agreed to drop its inquiry, a step that leaves his government pensions intact.

Crompton and others also noted that there will be another vacancy on the court come January because Castille, 70, has reached the mandatory age for retirement. It makes political and policy sense for the governor to decide both nominations at the same time, they said.

That scenario, at least, is one that Senate Democrats support, including Costa. He predicted the vacancies would be filled with one Democrat and one Republican, but added, "I'm not going to say I'm not going to push for two Democrats."

Regardless of party affiliation, he said, "It's critically important that we nominate two highly respected, honorable, and above-reproach folks."

In all, three Supreme Court seats will be up for grabs next year: those of McCaffery, a Democrat, Castille, a Republican, and onetime Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican.

Corbett last year nominated Justice Correale F. Stevens to fill the vacancy on the high court left after Melvin resigned following her conviction in a corruption case.

Those who follow the high court said it marks the first time in recent memory that three seats will be open in the same election.

>Inquirer.com

For more coverage of the Pennsylvania e-mail porn case, and Justice Seamus P. McCaffery's role in it, go to inquirer.com/emailporn

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