Senior judges expected to fill vacancy in Washington County court
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Senior judges are expected to fill the temporary vacancy in Washington County Common Pleas Court that was created late last month with the unexpected retirement of Judge Paul Pozonsky.
County President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca said this week she intends to apply to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to ask that senior judges be appointed to serve as needed in the county until the November 2013 general election, when the vacancy will be permanently filled.
Judges are required to retire at the age of 70, but they can continue serving in a limited, as-needed basis as senior judges while collecting pensions.
Judge Pozonsky, 56, of North Strabane, announced his retirement June 30, halfway through his second 10-year term in office and a month after he was stripped of handling criminal cases by the president judge.
In his retirement letter, Judge Pozonsky said his caseload since 1998 had included 60 percent to 70 percent of all criminal cases in the county, along with a drug treatment court he founded in 2005. The drug treatment court, which offered rehabilitation services in lieu of jail time for first-time offenders, was suspended by Judge O'Dell Seneca last month, shortly after Judge Pozonsky ordered the destruction of evidence related to 17 mostly drug-related cases.
Art Heinz, spokesman for the courts office, said the process to replace a judge has no bearing on whether the vacancy is caused by a death --such as was the case two years ago when Judge Mark Mascara died --or whether the person chooses to leave the job for any reason.
"The process is all the same," he said.
Along with the senior judges, Judge O'Dell Seneca has asked the remaining five county judges to absorb some of Judge Pozonsky's caseload.
Gov. Tom Corbett also has the option to nominate someone to fill the vacancy through 2013, Mr. Heinz said.
"It is the prerogative of the governor to nominate someone to the vacancy, then it's the prerogative of the Senate to confirm that person," he said.
The state Legislature has recessed until after Labor Day.
After Judge Mascara's June 2010 death, local lawyers and members of the Washington County Bar Association expressed outrage when then-Gov. Ed Rendell appointed Phil Melograne to fill the temporary vacancy.
The appointment came over the objections of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille and local lawyers, who said they were told budget constraints would keep the position from being filled.
A year later, Judge Melograne lost his bid for a full term to North Strabane lawyer Gary Gilman.
Whether the position is temporarily filled or not, Mr. Heinz said his office would ensure that the court business isn't affected by Judge Pozonsky's retirement.
"We make sure that business continues uninterrupted," he said.
First Published July 12, 2012 12:00 am