Picture this: A conservative Republican chief justice is called upon to decide the fate of one of the most partisan issues of our time, and, surprisingly comes down on the Democratic side. Health care and John Roberts? Actually, I was thinking of voter ID and Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ron Castille. There is a plausible scenario whereby he will cast the deciding vote regarding the controversial new law. And while his brethren might rule along party lines, Castille has a history of flexing his independence. With the testimony concluded in the challenge to the state’s voter-ID law, a decision is soon expected from Judge Robert Simpson of Commonwealth Court. Regardless of what he decides, this matter is destined for the state Supreme Court, which currently consists of six, rather than the customary seven, members. Republican Justice Joan Orie Melvin was recently suspended after being criminally charged, leaving the court with three Republicans and three Democrats, and Castille in a position of power. As goes the state Supreme Court, so will go the law. It’s doubtful that any effort to put this before the federal judiciary will be successful, as this challenge is predicated upon the commonwealth’s constitution.
Castille, the war hero who left a leg in Vietnam, has never felt compelled to toe a party line. That independence has spanned his career. In 1987, it was Castille, then the Republican district attorney in Philadelphia, who appeared alongside Democrats – Gov. Bob Casey, Mayor Wilson Goode, and former District Attorney Ed Rendell – in support of Casey’s judicial selections.
And just eight months ago, it was Castille who distinguished himself in an otherwise partisan 4-3 ruling when the state Supreme Court threw out a redistricted legislative map designed to benefit the GOP. Castille joined Democrats Max Baer, Deborah Todd, and Seamus McCaffery in forming a majority that overturned the plan. Republicans Melvin, Michael Eakin, and Thomas Saylor dissented. Voter ID could be a repeat of that lineup, minus Melvin. When Simpson’s ruling is evaluated, Justices Baer, Todd, and McCaffery might line up in opposition to the law. Justices Eakin and Saylor could take the opposite tack. Castille would constitute the sixth vote, and any 3-3 tie would simply uphold what Simpson rules.