Primary 2013/Washington County: Eight candidates vie for two judicial seats

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Judicial elections traditionally are different from other political races because candidates are limited in what they can promise and what they can say, lest they be confronted with a similar issue in court. The result is that voters often don't know much about judicial candidates.

This year, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette compiled key questions for Washington County Common Pleas Court candidates in an effort to educate voters about where the candidates stand on certain issues. Examples of current issues include prescription drug abuse, which law enforcement leaders in the county have identified as a crisis for the courts, and the fact that judges are facing more new criminal cases due to drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

The race is crowded with eight candidates vying for two open seats, vacancies that resulted from the unexpected retirements last year of Judges Janet Bell and Paul Pozonsky.

In the May 21 primary, each major party will select two candidates to face off in the Nov. 5 general election.

All of the candidates are lawyers with varying levels of experience, and each has cross-filed to appear on both the Democratic and Republican ballots.

A candidates forum for the judicial contenders is scheduled for 7 p.m. April 30 at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pittsburgh at Meadow Lands.

Common Pleas judges are paid an annual salary of $173,271, and the term in office is 10 years. Sitting judges don't run for re-election but face up or down votes every decade.

The current court is made up of four judges who face a backlog of cases because of the shortage of jurists. The county has been using several senior judges from across the state to help. Gov. Tom Corbett isn't expected to appoint any temporary judges to the bench before November, though that could change at any time.

New judges traditionally serve a period of time "paying their dues" by overseeing family court cases, though this year's new judges may find themselves in civil and criminal court, depending on how cases are distributed by President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca.

Here are the candidates and their views on some issues.

Michael J. Lucas

Considered the front-runner in the race among Democrats, Michael J. Lucas has served as chief prosecutor for three district attorneys, including current officeholder Eugene Vittone. Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College, said Mr. Lucas has the highest name recognition among the candidates.

"You've got to give the advantage to the candidates who are well-known," Mr. DiSarro said.

Mr. Lucas has specific ideas about changes he'd like to see explored in the local court system, including possibly assigning judges to handle cases in certain parts of the county, rather than the current system in which judges are assigned cases based on whether the cases are criminal, civil or family court.

Called "community prosecution," the system based on location is being used successfully in Westmoreland County and has resulted in a more streamlined system that saves resources, Mr. Lucas said.

"I think it's something that's worth a discussion," he said. "There's got to be versatility on the bench."

Mr. Lucas also advocates the use of alternative dispute resolution to avoid civil trials where possible. Earlier pre-trial conferences and mediation could save the local courts time and money, he said.

"Civil cases are extremely expensive to litigate," he said. "The earlier you can get parties in to resolve a dispute, the better."

As for the prescription drug abuse crisis, Mr. Lucas pointed out that 95 percent of all prescriptions for pain medications in the world are written in the U.S.

He and the other candidates said they would support an expansion of the county's drug court, established by Judge Pozonsky and recently reinstated by Judge O'Dell Seneca. The court is used to divert defendants to treatment programs in conjunction with, or in place of, jail time.

"We simply can't continue to jail people who have an addiction -- that's not a long-term solution," Mr. Lucas said.

Valarie Costanzo

Mr. DiSarro's second pick as a top vote-getter in the race is Cecil District Judge Valarie Costanzo, the only elected official in the pack.

Judge Costanzo has served as a district judge for 14 years and is well-known in local political circles, Mr. DiSarro said.

Her No. 1 idea for reform of the local court system is the creation of a central booking center for after-hours arrests.

Currently, the county's 11 district judges take turns working after hours with arraignments every four hours. Judge Constanzo advocates a booking center located at the county jail with video arraignments. Such a system would allow police officers to take people who are being arrested to the jail and return to patrol, rather than waiting at a police station until a district judge opens office.

"Every single community in Washington County would benefit because officers could immediately be back on the streets," Judge Costanzo said.

The county already uses a booking center at the jail to fingerprint suspects, and video arraignments also have been done at police stations. Expanding the system would not be overly expensive or complicated, the judge said.

"Many counties have this in place right now," she said.

Judge Costanzo said she is a good candidate because voters are aware of her long record of public service.

"With me, you don't have to guess," she said. "I've been in the courtroom for 14 years, and I treat everybody with the dignity and respect they deserve."

Judge Costanzo agreed that the county has a drug abuse crisis and said she, too, would focus on treatment as the key to breaking the addiction cycle.

"As a district judge, I've seen a lot more of these cases in recent years," she said.

Lane M. Turturice

Mr. DiSarro's pick for the GOP nod in the primary election is Lane M. Turturice, solicitor for Washington, Pa., who won the nomination when he ran for judge two years ago.

In addition to the city, Mr. Turturice and his law partner Timothy R. Berggren represent 11 other school districts, municipalities and authorities.

Recently, the city was sanctioned by a federal district judge because Mr. Turturice told the court he destroyed an audio recording of a meeting with Victoria Bozic, a former firefighter who sued the city for discrimination. Mr. Turturice later informed the court that he had found the tape and was read his Fifth Amendment rights by U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak, who questioned the discrepancy. Mr. Turturice declined to comment about the case for this report.

Mr. Turturice said he would prefer a more proactive court, especially concerning juvenile cases.

"Court systems, more and more, are realizing they have to change with the times," he said. "Judges have to be more innovative in their thinking."

Mr. Turturice favors a system that keeps tighter monitoring on juvenile offenders to stop the pattern of crime. Rather than the current system in which juvenile offenders are brought to court every six months or so, Mr. Turturice said probation officers he has spoken with advocate a system in which juveniles report to a judge every month.

"These kids need to know somebody will hold them accountable," he said, noting that recidivism rates in counties that have tried the method have dropped.

Mr. Turturice said he also feels he has the right temperament for the job.

"I'm a careful listener," he said. "I'm known as a fair person who can listen to both sides. There needs to be a level playing field for everyone."

Blane A. Black

Another well-known lawyer in the race is Blane A. Black, president of the Washington County Bar Association who also serves as solicitor for the county tax assessment office.

Mr. Black could turn out to be a dark horse candidate, Mr. DiSarro noted.

"There's a rule in politics: Expect the unexpected and you might survive," Mr. DiSarro said.

Mr. Black said the county bar association has seen an uptick in memberships among lawyers who have come to the area specializing in Marcellus Shale issues.

"The county will have to be on its toes for those issues," he said. "I think I'm the most well-rounded candidate in the field."

Mr. Black has served as a court-appointed mediator and support hearing officer and said he has extensive experience in criminal and civil cases.

"I'm a consensus builder," he said. "Experience is key. I won't need any on-the-job training."

Mr. Black agrees that jail isn't the answer for all addicts.

"We can't put everybody in prison who has a drug problem," he said. "I think everybody deserves a second chance."

Charles E. Kurowski

Charles E. Kurowski is perhaps best known as a perennial judicial candidate -- he has previously run for the bench six times -- and a harsh critic of several sitting judges.

"At the rate it's going, the system is imploding," he said of the local courts. "The judges don't get along; they distrust each other."

Though most lawyers are traditionally tight-lipped about their feelings regarding the court, Mr. Kurowski is an exception.

He believes in judicial term limits and promised to serve a single term if elected.

Mr. Kurowski said he has had more of his cases reversed in his favor by appellate courts than other local lawyers.

"I'm not afraid to take on the establishment and reveal what's really going on in the courthouse," he said.

"I think we have a duty to preserve, protect and uphold the Constitution. I think [current judges] forgot about that when they were sworn in."

Mr. Kurowski favors an expanded drug court with random drug testing for defendants.

Alan Benyak

Former U.S. Army Major Alan Benyak, who served in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, said he's running for judge because no military veterans are on the bench.

"I would like to see a veteran running the Veterans Court, that's why I'm running," he said.

Mr. Benyak said he believes the local Veterans Court needs to be expanded because many more veterans will need assistance with issues as they return from Afghanistan.

"We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg," he said of veterans who have so far taken advantage of the program. Like the drug court, the Veterans Court diverts veterans into treatment or other programs depending on their circumstances. "Only a veteran can see the issues these people are facing."

Mr. Benyak said he also believes he has the personality necessary to be a good judge.

"I think I'm pretty laid back," he said. "I don't stay mad long -- I think that comes from being in the Army and a lawyer for so long. I think anyone who wants to be a judge should have a level personality."

Though Mr. Benyak also favors an expansion of the drug treatment court, he believes drug dealers need to be dealt with "appropriately and severely."

"You absolutely have to treat them differently" than addicts, he said.

Peter V. Marcoline III

The son of an FBI agent and federal prosecutor, Peter V. Marcoline III grew up with a healthy respect for the law.

Mr. Marcoline said he's also well versed in issues involving industry and has handled more than 500 criminal cases as a defense lawyer.

"The county is changing so quickly now," he said, citing the growth of the Marcellus Shale industry, retail and hospitality businesses, and the casino.

Mr. Marcoline said he has seen clients and others who have substance addiction issues along with an underlying mental health diagnosis, which can make them more difficult to treat in the court system.

"I think we need to increase the availability of mental health treatment in the court system," he said. "I think it needs to be expanded and available to more people."

Public agencies and private institutions are available outside of Washington County for dual-diagnosis patients, but few options exist locally, he said.

"We need more services like that here," he said. "I deal with these individuals on a daily basis."

Mr. Marcoline describes himself as an "even-keeled, down-to-earth man" who is ideally suited to serve as judge.

"I can have a conversation with anybody from any background," he said.

Thomas Fallert

Thomas Fallert has practiced law in 19 counties in Western Pennsylvania and, he said, he has learned along the way that Washington County's court system could be improved.

"I've had a lot of experience with different systems," he said. "We could be more efficient. It takes too long to get a case through the system."

The county's two new judges will need to be able to step right into the job, he said.

"The county is growing tremendously, and the result is a bigger burden on the legal system," he said. "I believe you have to have the experience to tackle these issues."

Mr. Fallert believes he has the qualities to be a good judge.

"A judge must be even and level-tempered," he said.

After 30 years as a trial lawyer, Mr. Fallert said, he's ready for a change.

"I believe that in this stage of my career, I have the legal and life experience," he said. "I'm ready to make a contribution to the legal community in a different way."

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Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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