The retirement of Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court signals the end of a disappointing tenure as the state's top jurist.
When a court is working best, it's viewed as an independent arbiter that stands firm against the changeable gusts of politics. But on controversies ranging from slots casinos to legislative pay raises, Cappy allowed the court to become a very large part of politically charged stories.
His poor judgment helped foster an erosion of public confidence in the court. The incoming chief justice, Ronald Castille, must work harder to erase the perception that the court is an enabler of the legislature's worst habits.
Cappy, 64, is stepping down at the end of this year, two years before the end of his term. He said that he wanted to spend more time with his family, and that the pay-raise furor of 2005 did not influence his decision.
Perhaps not. But Cappy's legacy will be as an architect of that infamous deal, which brought about a true citizens' revolt and a seismic shift in the legislature. Cappy won't face voters again, but other judges are still confronting the wrath he fomented.
The episode started out with good intentions - to eliminate politics from judicial pay raises by tying state judges' salaries to those of federal jurists. By lobbying legislative leaders quietly, however, Cappy opened himself up to accusations of engaging in a back-room deal.
When the legislature rammed through the pay raise for judges and lawmakers at 2 a.m. without any notice, it became an indefensible public deception.
But defend it Cappy did. He called the legislature "courageous" for approving the measure; he criticized public opposition to the move as "knee jerk."
It only reinforced the perception that he endorsed the legislature's arrogant methods.
The resulting outcry forced the legislature to repeal the pay raises. But public confidence in the court was further undermined last year when the justices reinstated the pay increases for judges only. Cappy recused himself from that decision.
The court under Cappy has too often winked at the legislature's short-cuts designed to evade public scrutiny.
As with the pay-raise vote, the court gave its blessing to the casino legislation of 2004, which was a substitute measure passed without the constitutionally required three-day waiting period. In such major cases, the court has sided with legislative convenience over the public interest.
This is the Cappy record which the public will remember. It's all the more unfortunate because, within his profession, Cappy does get credit for modernizing the court. He pushed for computerization of the courts, and created a commission on ethnic, gender and racial fairness. Many lawyers who have stood before him say Cappy fostered a more collegial atmosphere.
But the fallout over his foray into back-room politics goes on.