How are the two connected? Both sides arguing on the voter-ID case have vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court whatever decision Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson makes. Melvin's trial and suspension means that there is an empty seat on the Supreme Court, which could deadlock the court in a 3-3 decision. (In that case, the lower- court ruling stands. )
Naturally, no one can or should be taking odds on how the Supreme Court will ultimately rule; it's possible that there will be a clear majority. But even if that's the case, the fact that the state's highest court has a missing member is troubling - and not just because an odd number of justices helps avoid deadlocks or split decisions. The cases that come before the state Supreme Court are by definition important and noteworthy - and provide the final say on conflicts in the law. Lawyers and litigants are right to expect to have the full force of all seven members.
That's why the court should consider appointing an interim member. There is some debate in law circles over whether the court has the authority to do so - especially since Melvin is "suspended" but still a member of the court - but surely the Supreme Court has more authority than most, and should move to rectify its current makeup. The last time the court came up short was when Justice Rolf Larsen was suspended in 1993, and later convicted on charges of illegally getting prescription drugs. The court then appointed someone who had already been serving as an interim justice to take his place.
There is one more ideal solution: Melvin should step down. That not only would erase the dark cloud that hangs over the court, but it also would create an official vacancy instead of her current paid suspension. In that case, an interim judge could be appointed, but would require approval of the state Senate.
Sadly, none of these options will have an impact on the voter-ID decision, which is not the only noteworthy case likely to come before the court, but certainly is one of the most critical at this moment. Requiring special government-issued photo ID from PennDOT, the voter-ID bill, also known as Act 18, is one of the strictest in the country because of the proof it demands of someone's suitability for an ID car. Until later this month, a voter will need an original birth certificate, a Social Security card, as well as other proof of residency - and has the potential to disenfranchise minorities, seniors and others. All this to solve a "problem"- voter fraud - for which the state was unable to provide any evidence.
By now, most of us are well-used to the concept of downsizing and doing more with less. But that shouldn't be the case with justice. The Supreme Court should fight for a full complement.