Castille wants 1 more year running court


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Pennsylvania's judiciary has been the subject of much scrutiny and public outcry in recent years, following a scandal in Luzerne County's Common Pleas Court, the indictment of several Philadelphia traffic court judges, the conviction of a sitting Supreme Court justice and the current federal investigation of another.

Still, the man who has presided over the state's highest court during all of it -- Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille -- believes that he remains the right man for the job.

Like three of his colleagues on the appellate courts in Pennsylvania, Justice Castille is up for retention in next week's general election.

In May, Rock the Capital, a government watchdog group, issued a report criticizing Justice Castille and what organizer Tim Potts called his "failure of leadership of a stunning magnitude."

But nothing has since happened, and Justice Castille's retention election has fallen beneath the radar.

"I don't have the energy or money to [sustain] it," Mr. Potts said. "I had hoped we would get some media interest or law school interest.

"It's hard as hell to get any information out there about it."

Retention elections are generally considered sleepers, but Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor, thought that with the recent scandals in Pennsylvania courts that Justice Castille's race would at least draw some interest.

"I thought this would make for a very lively debate over his retention, but it has not."

Although Mr. Ledewitz makes no recommendations one way or the other for a judicial candidate, he does believe that the problems in the courts do "raise very serious issues" about Justice Castille's leadership.

But, Mr. Ledewitz continued, "unquestionably, the quality of the opinions of the Supreme Court have improved under his watch."

One of the few questions surrounding Justice Castille's retention run is the timing of it.

If he wins, Justice Castille will only be able to serve one year of the 10-year term because next year he turns 70 -- the state's mandatory retirement age for judges. That will require him to step down at the end of 2014.

Still, the Marine Corps veteran and Bronze Star Medal winner from Vietnam said he believes he should run -- even if it only includes an additional year of service.

"I've got a lot of things I want to accomplish before I go," he said.

Were the justice to have stepped down at the end of this year and not run for retention, there still would still have to be a gubernatorial appointment to fill his seat on the bench for the 2014 calendar year.

"With my leadership on the court and my experience, I think the citizens would be better served by my full year of service rather than a new person's year-and-a-half," Justice Castille said.

There is a proposed constitutional amendment pending that would increase the retirement age to 75, but it has to go through two successive legislative terms, as well as a statewide referendum before it can become law. That means it will not benefit Justice Castille.

"You've got some really good, productive judges -- even up to 80. At this level, experience is important."

Lynn Marks, the executive director of the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which does not endorse any candidates, said that it would be different if Pennsylvania held special elections, which cost significant amounts of money, to fill judicial vacancies.

But that's not the case here.

"We're not offended by the fact it's only one year," she said. "They're entitled to sit until they're 70. If a judge still thinks he or she has a lot to add, they should go ahead and run."

Justice Castille said his likely greatest accomplishment as chief of the state's high court has been his ability to steer it through tough financial times.

"We have not had to close one courtroom for one day, or even one hour," he said.

More than that, Justice Castille said he has actually been able to save the state money, because 29 Common Pleas Court seats and 19 magisterial court seats remain empty and are being staffed by senior judges.

Among his contributions to the court, Justice Castille also counts the 400 majority opinions he has written and 220 dissents.

Among the things he still hopes to accomplish are seeing through the recommendations from the Elder Law Committee created in early 2012, which is exploring rule changes for things like guardianship, as well as the completion of rules and guidelines for constables who work in Pennsylvania.


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.

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