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With McCaffery, Castille Leaving, Pa. High Court Set for Change

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By William Peacock, Esq. on October 29, 2014 2:51 PM

Earlier this week, the long-simmering and now-public feud between Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery and Chief Justice Ronald Castille finally ended with McCaffery's resignation. Their bitter battle goes back years (and ended with a pornographic email scandal); many suspect it was the reason why Castille ran a retention election knowing that he'd only be able to serve a single year because of the state's age limit. Castille himself admitted that he was gunning for McCaffery, calling him a "sociopath" in the court's suspension order earlier this month.

McCaffery is gone. Castille has two more months on the bench. And much of the rest of the bench is gone, or on the way out. Let's take a look at the openings, and how the seats will likely be filled.

Quick Primer on Pa. Supreme Court Appointments

Pennsylvania fills its bench through public, partisan elections. Once elected, a judge faces a retention election every 10 years. Only one justice, since the current rules were implemented as part of the state's 1968 constitutional convention, has failed to win a retention bid, according to Wikipedia.

Justices also are forced into retirement at the age of 70. Retirements, resignations, and other openings are filled, temporarily, by the governor's appointment. The appointee could, theoretically, run for retention at the end of the appointed term.

Who's Out? Who's on the Way Out?

McCaffery is out. Castille is out at the end of the year.

Former Justice Joan Orie Melvin is serving a three-year house arrest sentence. According to The Associated Press, she dropped her appeals this week after the Supreme Court held earlier this month that she couldn't serve the house arrest term while appealing an apology letter provision of her sentence -- no picking and choosing, in other words.

Her replacement Correale F. Stevens' term will expire at the end of next year. (If he's reelected, it would only be for a year because of the age limit.)

Three more justices are in their final terms, with each set to depart in consecutive years after Stevens: 2016, 2017, and 2018.

In sum: In four years, this will be a completely different court, with only one of the seven justices eligible to stick around. Gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf, a Democrat, looks like a safe bet to unseat the incumbent, Gov. Tom Corbett, as he holds a sizable lead in the polls. If so, expect the court to be largely Wolf-appointed, and likely entirely Democratic.

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