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John Baer: One supreme mess

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is facing big issues, infighting and filling an empty seat.

PENNSYLVANIA'S highest court faces what can reasonably be called one heck of a mess.

And if you think it's just stuff lawyers fight over that can't affect you, the economy, state politics and whatever's left of trust in government, think again.

The state Supreme Court will soon decide on (still-pending) legislative redistricting, issues critical to the future of natural-gas drilling . . . and it's only a matter of time before it (again) gets a case involving voter ID.

This mix is muddied by infighting and the fact that the seven-member court is short one justice and operating with a three-three party split.

Tie votes mean lower-court decisions stand, rendering the Supreme Court meaningless on any politically charged issue that can't get a majority vote.

And, yeah, I know partisan politics has no place in judicial decisions but, come on, who's kidding whom?

Meanwhile, Justice Joan Orie Melvin resigned Monday, a month after her public-corruption conviction and ahead of what surely would have been her impeachment. The resignation is effective May 1.

The chief justice, Ron Castille, 69, is running for a 10-year retention election despite the fact that the state constitution dictates judges retire at 70.

That requirement is being challenged in state and federal courts and conceivably could come before Castille's court.

When asked during an appearance at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon this week why he should be retained given his age and multiple scandals during his watch - Luzerne County's Kids for Cash, Philadelphia Traffic Court, the Philadelphia Family Court building - Castille said, "Cuz I'm a really good guy."

He added, more seriously, because it's a "tough time" for the court and the learning curve for someone new "is steep and long."

He's certainly right about it being a "tough time."

Another potential problem stems from an Inky story earlier this month that Justice Seamus McCaffery's wife/judicial aide Lise Rapaport collected 18 referral fees - one for $821,000 last year - from law firms in exchange for hooking them up with clients.

(The newspaper since reported that Rapaport was on leave from the court during 2007, the year she made the referral that brought in $821,000.)

And although a lawyer for the judicial couple calls payments to Rapaport "eminently proper" even for referrals made while working for the court, Castille says legal and ethical questions surrounding the fees are "a matter of concern."

Translation: high court infighting that could end up before the state's Judicial Conduct Board, which could deepen the high court's mess.

It's worth noting that Republican Castille and Democrat McCaffery, though both Marines and brothers of the robe, share a brotherhood more like Cain and Abel.

McCaffery, according to associates, blames Castille for leaking information in a Philadelphia Traffic Court report last year suggesting McCaffery sought to fix a ticket given to his wife. McCaffery denied seeking a fix.

Castille, according to associates, privately castigates McCaffery, a former Philly cop and municipal judge, as having peaked at street level.

Each, it's clear, would be happy to be rid of the other.

Add to this mélange the race to fill the court.

Gov. Corbett can nominate a seventh justice to serve until January 2016, a nomination requiring approval of two-thirds of the Senate.

That means Democratic votes are needed, which means nobody controversial or too political gets through even after he or she promises not to run for a full term in 2015.

Meanwhile, the court itself could appoint an interim justice, especially if it seems Corbett's nominee faces trouble or is stalled amid fights over privatizing booze and passing a budget.

On one hand, all this seems an argument for appointed rather than elected statewide judges.

On the other hand, all this could push the court closer to the downward spiraling eddy that swallows public trust in so much of what passes for public service in Pennsylvania.