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Nine judges eye three state Supreme Court seats

The race for the highest court starts as soon as Tuesday's general election ends.

Chief Justice of Pa. Ron Castille speaks prior to swearing in Seamus McCaffery as a new Pa. Supreme Court Justice at the Phila. Convention Center on January 3, 2008.  (Elizabeth Robertson / Inquirer Staff)
Chief Justice of Pa. Ron Castille speaks prior to swearing in Seamus McCaffery as a new Pa. Supreme Court Justice at the Phila. Convention Center on January 3, 2008. (Elizabeth Robertson / Inquirer Staff)Read moreINQUIRER ROBERTSON

IN CRISIS there is opportunity - this well-worn but still prescient political trope is on the minds of at least nine judges considering the three open seats on the state Supreme Court next year.

The high court has seen more jabs and pummeling than jurisprudence lately, as Chief Justice Ron Castille maneuvered to oust Justice Seamus McCaffery.

McCaffery retired Monday after Justice J. Michael Eakin accused him of making threats.

Castille has to step down Dec. 31, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

And time is up next year for Justice Correale Stevens, appointed last year to finish the term of former Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who was convicted of using her staff to do political work.

The state's Code of Judicial Conduct says judges can't declare for next year's race until after Tuesday's general election.

Stevens, a Luzerne County Republican, says he is "definitely considering all options" for seeking a full 10-year term.

We count six Democrats and three Republicans mulling a run for those three seats.

Two are Philadelphia Democrats: Superior Court Judge Anne Lazarus and Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty, who was named last week as the city's administrative judge.

Dougherty's older brother is John Dougherty, leader of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The Dougherty brothers declined to comment this week on the potential candidacy and the considerable political resources they could put in play for that.

Lazarus, like the other potential candidates, sees 2015 as a strong political cycle for Democrats with an open primary for mayor in Philadelphia boosting voter turnout here.

McCaffery and Justice Debra McCloskey Todd, both Democrats, won their seats in 2007, a similarly favorable year for their political party.

Lazarus concedes she may face political blow-back from her political ties to McCaffery.

"People will use anything for any purposes," she said when we mentioned a Legal Intelligencer story from last week that laid out her friendship with McCaffery.

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said three seats haven't been open at the same time on the Supreme Court in at least 25 years and perhaps never in the history of the court.

Another factor may spur judges to run now instead of waiting.

The state General Assembly this year approved a measure that would raise the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75. The General Assembly must approve that measure again next year to have it placed on the ballot for voter approval to amend the state constitution.

Fewer retiring judges would mean fewer open seats to fill.

Superior Court President Judge Emeritus John Bender, an Allegheny County Republican, said he was not thinking about running in a year that favors Democrats until McCaffery's seat opened up. That and the potential extension of the retirement age may change his mind.

Superior Court Judges David Wecht and Christine Donahue, both Allegheny County Democrats, said they expect to become candidates once Tuesday's general election is out of the way.

Superior Court Judge Sally Updike Mundy, a Republican from Tioga County in north-central Pennsylvania, is also said to be considering a run. She did not respond to requests for comment.

Wecht could benefit from some name recognition - his father is the nationally-known forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht.

Another potential candidate with a well-known name is Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Dwayne Woodruff, who played cornerback for 12 seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers while attending law school at night.

Woodruff, a Democrat who is up for a retention election for his current seat next year, said he may run for that and the Supreme Court at the same time.

John Foradora, a Democrat and the only Common Pleas judge in Jefferson County - northeast of Pittsburgh - is also considering a run.

"I think we need less politics on the court," Foradora said of the recent controversy. "More legal decisions, less political interests."