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Philadelphia Common Pleas Trial Division Administrative Judge James J. Fitzgerald III has been confirmed by the state Senate to temporarily fill the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seat made vacant late last year when former justice Sandra Schultz Newman left the bench to join Cozen O’Connor. The Republican Fitzgerald � whose position required him to work closely with Newman, who in recent years had served as the high court’s influential liaison to the city court system � had been rumored as Newman’s replacement almost immediately after the Republican Montgomery County native announced her decision to enter private practice. Officials in Harrisburg say that in addition to confirming Fitzgerald, the Senate has also approved Robert Daniels of Sprague & Sprague in Philadelphia � a veteran personal injury lawyer � to replace former Superior Court President Judge Joseph A. Del Sole. The vote as to both nominees was 47-0. “I’m very appreciative and thankful to the governor for nominating me, and to the Pennsylvania Senate for confirming me,” Fitzgerald said yesterday. Fitzgerald was a contemporary of Gov. Edward G. Rendell at the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova University School of Law and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, and sources say he has long enjoyed close personal ties to the governor. What’s not immediately clear is how Fitzgerald’s ascent will affect the oversight of the Philadelphia court system that the state Supreme Court has wielded through the liaison system and the increased import of the administrative judgeships. A series of changes implemented at the direction of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the late 1980s and early 1990s � when the Philadelphia court system was laboring under a heavy docket backlog � led to the paring down of the president judge’s influence within the city court system, First Judicial District (FJD) veterans have told The Legal in the past. Through various orders, the state Supreme Court vested a greater deal of authority with the court system’s administrative judges. Those changes resulted in the current process under which administrative judges are appointed by the Supreme Court and are in charge of intradivisional affairs, such as hiring and assignments. As a result of that arrangement, a Republican-controlled Supreme Court has in recent years been in charge of picking top judicial officials for the overwhelmingly Democratic FJD. When Newman officially announced her retirement from the bench last fall, she hinted that the present system might end with her departure. Newman speculated that the FJD has been on solid enough administrative footing that a liaison justice might no longer be needed. Asked for his views on the subject, FJD President Judge C. Darnell Jones II said at the time that the city court system “should be rewarded” for the progress it has made in recent years under the justices’ guidance. But Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy told The Legal late last year that he believes the high court is “a little reluctant to abandon” a system that appears to be working well. And at the time Cappy dismissed the suggestion that the liaison justice arrangement is politically tinged, saying it has survived past its infancy simply because it gives the justices an “instant means of communication” with leaders of the state’s largest and most complex court system. Earlier this year, Justice Ronald D. Castille, the former Philadelphia district attorney, was named Newman’s replacement for the First Judicial District liaison position. Cappy said in an interview yesterday that the justices will meet next month to weigh the future of the current Supreme Court liaison-Philadelphia common pleas administrative judge system. “I don’t know what the court will decide about whether or not to name” a replacement for Fitzgerald, Cappy said yesterday. In addition to hiring and assignment duties, Philadelphia’s trial division AJ is also responsible for managing the division’s budget and coordinating the city’s probation system, Jones noted. He said Fitzgerald is leaving behind a strong infrastructure within the division. “The ship will continue to sail, without listing,” Jones said. Fitzgerald said yesterday that Castille will officially swear him in during a private ceremony in the coming days. He expects to be set up in Newman’s former offices in Conshohocken by Monday. That should make Fitzgerald available for the high court’s oral arguments session next month in City Hall. Many practitioners and judges were eager to see Newman’s seat filled quickly because her departure left the court with only six justices, creating the possibility of a 3-3 split on individual cases � something that happened with regularity in the early- to mid-1990s, when the court often operated without a full complement of seven members. The court also spent a big chunk of 2006 without a seventh member after former justice Russell Nigro’s ouster in the November 2005 election. Cynthia A. Baldwin was confirmed as justice by mid-February of last year to serve as Nigro’s interim replacement. Fitzgerald’s comparatively late confirmation date meant that he was not available to complete a septet at the high court’s session last month in Pittsburgh, which featured arguments on key media and insurance law matters, among other cases. Some in Pennsylvania’s legal community think the interim justice system is more trouble than it’s worth. But others believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. “It’s difficult for people who come on for short periods because � there’re only so many assignments I can give an interim,” Cappy said. Since interims typically vacate their seats by Dec. 31, Cappy said he must assign them their last opinions no later than early October. Still Cappy said, there is value in placing interim justices on the bench. Non-judges in the local legal world agree. “Right now, there’s the possibility of a 3-3 split,” said Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Jane Leslie Dalton. “It’s good for the court to get new input from time to time.” Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, noted that in the event of a 3-3 split, the lower court’s opinion in a case will serve as the controlling precedent. Marks also reasoned that the interim justice system is necessary in the highly unlikely event that multiple justices die or are rendered incapacitated at or around the same time. “I think the greater evil is not permitting the governor to appoint, despite the fact that in some cases, a new justice won’t have the opportunity to perform for a very long time.” Nigro and Newman’s permanent replacements will be chosen by the voters during this November’s election.

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