By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — For what is normally the most secretive and closed branch of state government, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court spent a lot of time in the spotlight during 2012.
During the past 12 months, the Keystone State’s high court issued an historic and earth shattering decision changing how the state legislative district lines are drawn, and brought an end to the highly-politicized, months-long debate over the state’s new voter ID law by effectively telling a lower court to reverse course on an earlier decision upholding the law.
And don’t forget the corruption scandal that caused the court to suspend one of its own midway through the year.
In some ways, the state Supreme Court’s time in the spotlight during 2012 runs counter to how the state’s highest legal arbiters see themselves.
Courts generally try to stay out of overt political issues, as they prefer to leave election issues to the political branches of government, said Wes Oliver, a professor of law at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
“They tend to only get involved when the process is not working the way it should,” Oliver said, pointing to the famous example of the U.S. Supreme Court settling the outcome of the 2000 presidential election in the Bush v. Gore case.
Like that case, the rulings that made a big splash this year dealt with the big questions of elections — who gets to vote for whom and how ballots are cast. They also dealt with questions of political favoritism and whether one party, the Republicans, were trying to put their thumb on the electoral scale.
But unlike the famous Bush v. Gore case, which was determined on strict ideological lines in the federal court, the justices in Pennsylvania found a way to shed the perception of partisanship — no easy feat when wading into such political issues.
On redistricting, Chief Justice Ron Castille, a Republican, broke ranks and joined the three Democrats on the high court to block the GOP-penned district maps.
In the voter ID ruling, Castille and the three other Republicans on the court were joined by one Democrat, Max Baer, in instructing a lower court to take a second look at the case from a different perspective — effectively leading to the temporary overturning of the law for the 2012 election.
Kermit Roosevelt, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the court lived up to its role of ensuring a level playing field without getting too involved in details.
“The parties will always try to skew the process,” he said. “This was the courts acting as the guardians of democracy.”
January: Supreme Court rejects new legislative district maps
The year of the Supreme Court really began on Jan. 25, when the court shocked the political world in Harrisburg by remanding newly drawn state legislative districts and instructed the leaders of the General Assembly to start over from scratch.
With a 4-3 Republican majority, most observers expected the court to rubber stamp a Republican-drawn map that would help the GOP maintain healthy majorities in the state House and state Senate.
But in a decision penned by Castille, the court laid down some new — if somewhat vague — guidelines for how the partisan redistricting process should take place.
Most importantly, the court ordered districts to be drawn with greater respect for existing political subdivisions like counties and townships.
The legislative map “contains numerous political subdivisions splits that are not absolutely necessary and the Plan thus violates the constitutional command to respect the integrity of political subdivisions,” Castille wrote.
It was the first time the court had blocked the implementation of the new maps, which are redrawn every 10 years following the national census.
After the new district lines were blocked, legislative leaders went back to the drawing board. They presented a revised plan to the high court in October, but no ruling has been made.
Oliver said the ruling will have legal implications far down the road, as it gives future courts the precedent to reject the maps if they feel the best interests of the state are not being served.
“The fact that they have now done it once will have the parties looking over their shoulders in future years,” he said.
May: Justice Joan Orie-Melvin suspended amid corruption charges
But the Supreme Court made waves for other reasons too.
On May 18, Justice Joan Orie-Melvin was indicted on nine counts related to allegations that she used staffers to perform campaign work during her successful 2009 election to the court.
Her sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, R-Allegheny, had been convicted in March on 14 criminal counts ranging from forgery to conflict of interest related to the same incidents.
A day after she was changed, Orie-Melvin was suspended from the Supreme Court. She is scheduled to go on trial on Jan. 23 in Allegheny County.
October: A directional punt on voter ID
With Orie gone, the court was reduced to three Republicans and three Democrats, a formula that seemed certain to produce a deadlock when it considered Pennsylvania’s voter ID law in mid-October.
Instead, the court dodged controversy by flipping the voter ID ruling back to a lower court for a second round of hearings that ultimately led to it being disqualified for the general election in November. The law is scheduled to take effect in 2013 unless another round of legal battles can block or postpone it once again.
In ordering the review back to the lower court, the 4-2 majority on the Supreme Court pointed to a “disconnect between what the law proscribes and how it is being implemented.”
For the second time in less than 10 months, the Republican-controlled state government had been stymied at the highest level by a court that was, at least before Orie’s suspension, also controlled by Republicans.
“One of the most important things the courts can do is act as a check on the majority,” Roosevelt said. “In both of those cases, the court frustrated the will of the majority in the Legislature.”
In 2012, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reminded observers that separation of powers is more than a concept taught in PoliSci 101.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.