Pennsylvania's venture into slots gambling is starting to read like a John Grisham novel. Except this real-life legal drama is unfolding in the political backwater that is Harrisburg.
The stars include your fearless Pennsylvania lawmakers and the blind justices on the state Supreme Court. Supporting actors include dedicated good-government advocates.
The plot centers on the legalization of slots gambling, Gov. Rendell's
Multi-Million Dollar Baby
. Not to mention the backroom shenanigans surrounding the midnight pay raise that legislators' gave to themselves and to state judges, the
Men (and Women) in Black
First, some backstory: The cloak-and-dagger process surrounding the legislators' approval of the state gaming law in 2004 never smelled right. Then the state Supreme Court discarded all the constitutional challenges to the law and gave its green light to slots in June 2005.
Two weeks later, state lawmakers passed a bill in the dark of night that gave hefty pay raises to themselves and all the judges, including the Supreme Court justices.
The pay raise outraged voters. The legislature got scared and retracted its pay hike. But the justices upheld the salary boost for themselves - sparking a voter backlash that led to the defeat of Justice Russell Nigro in his reelection bid.
Fast-forward to last week, when the plot thickened: The League of Women Voters filed a suit in federal court against the former Supreme Court chief justice, alleging that the state's highest court had upheld the slots law in exchange for the legislature's approval of the pay raise.
The suit alleges former Chief Justice Ralph Cappy met in secret with legislative leaders to lobby for the judicial pay raise while the high court was considering the state's new gaming law. In one meeting, the suit alleges, Cappy told lawmakers he "needed the pay raise to secure the votes of Republican justices" on cases important to the lawmakers.
Cappy denies the allegation and has called the suit "preposterous" and "irresponsible."
Plot point: Cappy now works at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, a large Pittsburgh law firm that represents an investor in the planned Foxwoods casino in Philadelphia. The investor, developer Peter DePaul, has a suit pending before the state Supreme Court that seeks to strike down the ban on political campaign contributions by casino owners and executives. Cappy has said he won't appear before the court in this case. But his wise counsel on casino issues surely will come in handy at the firm.
Back to the League of Women Voters suit, filed in Harrisburg: The suit is based in part on allegations by an unnamed state senator. Given the severity of the allegations, that senator should come forward and stand by the claims.
Indeed, current Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille makes a valid point in criticizing the suit for relying on "faceless" individuals. But Castille then goes too far by saying the suit may subject the attorney representing the League of Women Voters to disciplinary action.
Such blatant intimidation only fuels concern about how the high court has conducted itself in the state's legalization of casinos process.
The allegations in the League's suit show why gaming law cases shouldn't go directly to the state Supreme Court, bypassing lower courts and giving the high court immense power.
Given the seriousness of the charges raised by the League, let's hope the federal court allows this case to proceed.