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'Rhyming judge' takes over high court

Saturday, January 05, 2002

By George Strawley, The Associated Press

HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania's rhyming judge stepped up to the role of Supreme Court justice yesterday, giving Republicans a 4-3 majority on the state's highest judicial panel.

J. Michael Eakin took the oath of office before about 500 well-wishers, offering no verse but telling his audience he hoped to contribute to the continuing improvement of the once-troubled court's reputation.

"The purpose of the judicial system is not to serve the judicial system," Eakin said. "The purpose of the judicial system is to serve the people of Pennsylvania."

Eakin, a Superior Court judge who garnered widespread publicity by writing three opinions in rhyme, defeated fellow Judge Kate Ford Elliott of Pittsburgh, with 53 percent of the vote in the Nov. 6 Supreme Court election.

With Eakin's arrival, Republicans now have control over all three branches of state government. It is the first Republican majority on the high court in three decades, according to the office of Chief Justice Stephen A. Zappala, a Democrat.

Eakin will serve a 10-year term in a position that currently pays $137,386 a year. Afterward, he may stand for retention elections, in which there are no opponents, at 10-year intervals.

Barring an early retirement or a death, Republicans are expected to retain their majority until at least 2008, when Republican Justice Sandra Schultz Newman reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Eakin said the court was "slowly regaining the luster it should have" after a scandal that led to the 1994 conviction of former Justice Rolf Larsen on a charge of conspiring to accept mood-altering drugs in the names of his employees. Larsen was impeached by the state Senate.

Eakin has not ruled out writing a Supreme Court opinion in verse but did say the gravity of the cases heard there make it less likely than on a lower court level.

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