A government watchdog group that was successful in stopping the retention of a sitting state Supreme Court justice in 2005 is at it again.
This time, Rock the Capital wants Pennsylvania voters to oust Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, who is running in his second retention election in November.
"He has so earned not being there," said Tim Potts, who is leading the campaign. "It is a failure of leadership of a stunning magnitude."
Justice Castille, whose office is in Philadelphia, said through a spokesman at the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts that he had no comment on the matter.
He was first elected to the high court in 1993, and won retention for a second 10-year term in 2003. He became chief justice in 2008.
If retained, he would be required to retire at the end of 2014, at the age of 70, as is mandated by the state Constitution. However, there is a case pending before the court in which other judges are challenging the mandatory retirement age.
Rock the Capital launched its efforts against the longtime jurist the day before the May primary, hoping that it would get voters to start thinking about November's general election.
The organization has a report online outlining its reasons for opposing Justice Castille and plans to launch a blog in coming weeks. Mr. Potts said he expects the majority of the work will be done online and through email.
In 2005, voting against retention may have been easier. The public was outraged by a middle-of-the-night pay raise approved by the state Legislature in July of that year.
Several grass-roots organizations joined forces for the 2005 general election and in the primary in 2006 to vote a number of incumbents out of office.
Then-Justice Russell Nigro lost his bid for retention in November 2005, making him the first justice in Pennsylvania history to lose what is generally viewed as a rubber-stamp election.
In the case of Justice Castille, Rock the Capital has listed a number of reasons why he should not be retained, including:
• Failure to pursue criminal activity by judges under his watch as chief justice.
• Failure to stop nepotism within the courts.
• His role in allowing judges to keep the 2005 pay raise even though the court determined it was unconstitutional for all other parties.
• Failure to create a policy banning the practice of Supreme Court justices accepting gifts from attorneys or law firms that appear before them.
Mr. Potts focused extensively on the Kids for Cash scandal in Luzerne County, in which two judges received millions of dollars in kickbacks to send juvenile offenders to placement facilities, as well as on the recent arrests of nine current and former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges for ticket fixing.
"He knew there were bad things going on, and he did nothing to stop it," Mr. Potts said.
As for nepotism, Mr. Potts said within the Pennsylvania judicial system it is "rampant," yet, in his role as head of the court system, Justice Castille has failed to take any action against it.
Hiring family members within the courts is commonplace in Allegheny County, and nepotism was cited among the allegations in the Luzerne County scandal by the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, which was formed, at least in part, under orders of Justice Castille.
In an interview with The Associated Press last month, Justice Castille said that the court was looking at its Code of Judicial Conduct, and that nepotism is among the topics being reviewed.
Mr. Potts questioned the sincerity of that statement, noting that the American Bar Association has for years had a model code of conduct clearly spelling out a policy prohibiting nepotism, and that it has been three years since the Interbranch Commission report was released on Luzerne County.
"You would expect the judiciary to care about its own reputation," Mr. Potts said. "There's no excuse."
Much of the criticism offered against Justice Castille revolves around his position as the chief justice, and therefore the rule maker on the court.
That, said Bruce Ledewitz, a constitutional law professor at Duquesne University, is a good thing.
"I think the most important aspect of what they're trying to do is not to look at the ideology of how he's voting," he said. "We shouldn't refuse to retain somebody because they vote in a way we disagree."
Instead, the professor continued, most of the criticisms by Rock the Capital have to do with the court's rule-making power -- such as its refusal to create a policy against nepotism or accepting gifts.
"The court operates in certain nonjudicial functions way beyond its capacity," Mr. Ledewitz said. "We should change the way the court operates. It should be a court. It should not have rule-making authority. It should have transparency."
Mr. Potts agreed.
"Time after time, [Justice Castille has] had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything to improve the judiciary," he said. "Whenever they do anything, it's so secretive. It's like a star chamber."
Mr. Potts said there is one court decision -- that on the pay raise -- that he believes shows a pattern by the current court to neglect the state Constitution and its protections of citizens.
Mr. Potts said he also worries that the court could violate the Constitution again if it rules in favor of eliminating the mandatory retirement age for jurists.
Mr. Ledewitz, though, said he does not believe that will happen.
"As much of a critic as I've been of Justice Castille on various grounds, these suggestions he's involved in a conspiracy to put off these cases and then suddenly, they'll strike down the retirement age are completely unfounded and unfair," he said.
Elections for the state Supreme Court should be among the most important, but Mr. Potts said they're often ignored. "That's typical of how we treat judicial elections, but it's also appalling."
Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, agrees that there should be a better dialogue.
"There really is a knowledge gap about the role of judges, in general," she said.
Her organization will not take a position on Justice Castille's retention -- or that of Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, or state Superior Court Judges Jack Panella or Susan Gantman -- but she did say the Rock the Capital effort provides an opportunity for public dialogue.
"We do believe transparency is crucial, and a judge's entire 10 years should be discussed," Ms. Marks said.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association issues recommendations for judicial candidates, including for those seeking retention, and will do so in the fall.
In reaching its recommendations, a panel reviews questionnaires completed by the candidates, does an analysis of written opinions and interviews attorneys who have appeared before them.
"Retention elections should not be used to punish judges for an unpopular decision," Ms. Marks said. "They should not be popularity contests or a referenda on a few decisions.
"Voters should decide for themselves what their priorities are."
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2620.