The state Senate unanimously confirmed the nomination of state Superior Court President Judge Correale F. Stevens to fill the vacancy left on the state Supreme Court by former Justice Joan Orie Melvin, bringing the high court back up to a full complement after being shorthanded for more than a year.
Several appellate lawyers The Legal spoke to Monday praised Stevens' broad experience, work ethic and exhaustive approach to writing opinions, as well as his judicial temperament.
While Stevens also drew several compliments for his fairness, not everyone viewed Stevens as being unbiased.
A number of criminal defense lawyers said there is a perception among the criminal defense bar that Stevens tends to be pro-prosecution.
Stevens was confirmed by a 50-0 vote Sunday, two days after he was unanimously recommended by the Senate Judiciary Committee and just over two weeks after he was nominated by Governor Tom Corbett.
Stevens said in a statement released Sunday that he plans to assume his role on the Supreme Court at the end of July.
"I look forward to working closely with the other six justices to resolve legal issues in a careful, deliberative and collegial manner," Stevens said in the statement. "I will seek consensus without giving up principle and will be an active participant in the administration of justice."
He told The Legal on Monday via email that he plans to appoint Judge Kate Ford Elliott as acting president judge "around July 30," at which point Ford Elliott will have 30 days to call for an election where the Superior Court bench will vote on someone to serve as president judge for the remainder of the year.
At the end of this year, Stevens said in the email, the judges will vote again to elect a president judge to serve a five-year term.
Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Burton A. Rose called Stevens "the hardest-working judge on the Superior Court" and said his opinions tend to be "very thorough."
"He goes over the facts very thoroughly and completely and he usually doesn't draw dissent on a three-judge panel," Rose said.
Alan M. Feldman of Philadelphia personal injury firm Feldman Shepherd Wohlgelernter Tanner Weinstock & Dodig characterized Stevens as "a careful, thoughtful judge."
Carl A. Solano, co-chair of Philadelphia-based Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis' appellate practice, cited the "wealth of expertise" Stevens brings to the court, noting that Stevens' "main area of expertise" is criminal law.
Stevens was elected to the Superior Court in November 1997 and won retention in November 2007.
Prior to that, Stevens was a judge on the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas. Before that, he served as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and as district attorney of Luzerne County.
Rob Byer, a former Commonwealth Court judge and head of the appellate division of Duane Morris in Pittsburgh, said Stevens' legislative experience would likely serve him well, for example, when the high court is tasked with deciding questions regarding separation of power issues.
Byer said Stevens' long tenure on the Superior Court should give him a "thorough grounding in a good chunk of the Supreme Court's subject-matter jurisdiction."
Stevens also scored high marks from nearly all the attorneys The Legal spoke to for his affable demeanor both on and off the bench.
Rose said Stevens is "very humble."
"No 'black robe disease' at all with that man," Rose said.
Solano said Stevens has a reputation for being "a very, very nice guy" on the bench.
Other attorneys told The Legal that Stevens is also widely regarded as a fair and impartial judge.
John J. Hare, chair of the appellate advocacy and post-trial practice at Philadelphia-based insurance defense firm Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, said Stevens is known for being "fair-minded and middle-of-the-road."
"He basically does call balls and strikes," Hare said.
Willow Grove, Pa.-based appellate lawyer Howard J. Bashman agreed.
"Certainly in cases where I've represented plaintiffs, he's been very fair to those parties and I think that he's not doctrinaire in terms of having an agenda," Bashman said.
But not every attorney The Legal spoke to shared these views.
One criminal defense lawyer said Stevens can often seem "dismissive" of defense attorneys during oral arguments in criminal cases.
Some attorneys told The Legal they believe Stevens tends to side with the prosecution because of his background as a district attorney.
The view of Stevens as being pro-prosecution is one that even Justice J. Michael Eakin has referenced publicly.
As previously reported by The Legal, Eakin pointed out in a talk to the Philadelphia Bar Association in March that there would be times that a three-judge panel including him, Stevens and another judge would have probably tended toward prosecutors, while three other judges on another panel would tend to the defense side. Eakin was speaking of the deference that the Supreme Court tends to show to en banc decisions from the Superior Court over three-judge panels.
Stevens, however, said in an email to The Legal on Monday that he is "absolutely not pro-prosecution."
"I take every case on the law and the facts of record," Stevens said. "As a former public defender I know many of those cases are difficult to win on appeal, based on the law and the trial record. My reputation, I believe, has been that of fair and impartial and during my retention year in 2007 many criminal defense lawyers joined assistant district attorneys in supporting my retention."
But Byer said he didn't think a pro-prosecution bent, whether real or perceived, would matter much at the Supreme Court level anyway.
"I think given the small percentage of criminal cases that actually succeed on appeal from the defense standpoint, it's hard to say that any perceived inclinations on the part of Judge Stevens would make a difference," Byer said.
Byer and several others did note that Stevens is known as one of a handful of Superior Court judges who tend to find waivers on appeal.
In October, the Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court's ruling in Newman Development Group of Pottstown v. Genuardi's Family Markets in which Stevens held that Genuardi's had waived its right to appeal a $18.5 million judgment by failing to file post-trial motions.
But Byer said Stevens would likely have a different perspective on the issue of waivers as a justice on the Supreme Court, which handles a significantly lower volume of appeals than the Superior Court.
One thing nearly everyone The Legal spoke to agreed on, however, was that the Pennsylvania bar as a whole would benefit from having a full Supreme Court again.
The court has been operating with six justices since Orie Melvin was suspended in May 2012 in the wake of political corruption charges. Orie Melvin was found guilty February 21 of three third-degree felonies of diversion of services, one third-degree felony count of criminal conspiracy to commit diversion of services, one second-degree misdemeanor of misapplication of entrusted property, and one second-degree misdemeanor of criminal conspiracy to commit tampering with or fabricating physical evidence.
Orie Melvin submitted her resignation from the court in March and it became effective May 1. Corbett had 90 days starting from Orie Melvin's resignation to submit a nominee for confirmation by two-thirds of the Senate. Stevens will serve until January 5, 2016, and a new justice would be elected in November 2015.
"It's going to be great to have a full seven justices up there because you know you'll get a decision," Solano said.
Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. •