How Family Court Mess Damages The Court

Posted: June 25, 2010

P ENNSYLVANIA Chief Justice Ron Castille showed a stunning lack of judgment when he involved himself in a disastrous real-estate deal to build a new family court; the deal blew up after an Inquirer investigation found that Jeffrey Rotwitt, the lawyer Castille hired to handle the deal, admitted he also had a side deal with the property owner developing the site.

That disaster has cost the public $12 million.

Castille compounded his bad judgment when he hired a lawyer to look into what invoices were paid to Rotwitt (by Castille) and for what. He has since hired another lawyer, a former deputy of his, to investigate the deal. How can Castille possibly believe that either of these would lead to a thorough, impartial report on this expensive mess - including his own oversight of the project? In fact, if this is his version of an impartial investigation into a serious matter, he has no business being on the bench.

Twelve million dollars is a lot of public money to have been squandered on a questionable deal. But that's not even where the biggest damage lies.

The erosion of trust in the courts is where Castille has done the most damage. That's bad for any judge; for the head of the state's highest court, that should be a firing offense.

We're not suggesting any illegal or nefarious dealings on the part of Castille, only bad oversight of a complex deal that he should have seen from the beginning he had no business wading into. Before entering into a real-estate deal, he should have asked: If this blows up, how could this damage the court?

And make no mistake: Now that the deal has blown up, the court is damaged.

This week, the developer who holds the rights to the 15th and Arch streets site is battling the Philadelphia Parking Authority in the courts over control of the property. Philadelphia's courts are overseen by Justice Castille, which may be why the developer filed in Bankruptcy Court. How can Castille possibly preside over subsequent court battles on this? Even if he recuses himself, any decision will be tainted by his involvement.

And although the FBI is investigating the deal, the silence from state leaders, especially calling for an independent investigation, is disturbing. The auditor general hasn't yet determined whether to investigate. The state's attorney general has a policy of not confirming or denying investigations.

The state attorney general is also running for governor. We trust this isn't a factor in any decision to investigate, though current or potential governors can't be blamed if they're shy about challenging the highest court, whose decisions can affect them. We aren't saying this is the case, but that such a scenario could even be discussed suggests just how many hand grenades come attached to this deal due to Castille's role.

The public deserves a full review of this deal, and the propriety of Castille's role in it.

The Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania says, "Judges should refrain from financial and business dealings that tend to reflect adversely on their impartiality, interfere with the proper performance of their judicial duties, exploit their judicial position, or involve them in frequent transactions with lawyers or persons likely to come before the court on which they serve."

This sums up the Family Court mess pretty well. More than this, Castille's lack of sound judgment has breached our confidence in the courts. For that reason, he should step down. *

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