Castille is accepting of litigants' gifts, trips

It's legal; they're disclosed. But even if Pennsylvania's chief justice shows no favoritism, some question the ethics.

Posted: November 21, 2010

Last December, Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille mingled with the state's other power players at the Waldorf Astoria during the meeting of the Pennsylvania Society.

The annual New York pilgrimage of schmoozing and socializing is usually an expensive weekend - but not for Castille. The Philadelphia law firm Saul Ewing L.L.C., which regularly argues cases before the Supreme Court, picked up the $1,900 tab for the hotel room and dinners for Castille and his wife, just as it had done the previous two years.

Castille, the state's top judge, routinely accepts dinners, plane rides, tickets to sporting events, and rounds of golf from lawyers and businessmen, some of them with cases that go before the court, his disclosures show.

A review of cases shows no pattern of favoritism in his decisions.

Castille and all other Pennsylvania jurists, except district magistrates and Traffic Court judges, can accept whatever gifts they like as long as they disclose them.

That's because the Supreme Court has ruled that it alone has authority to set and enforce ethics rules for judges and lawyers.

In 1978, when the legislature included judges in a new ethics law, the high court stepped in and said the law didn't apply to judges, asserting its exclusive power over the legal system.

Many states prohibit judges from accepting gifts, as does the federal judiciary. The one federal exception: the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Court justices also have been criticized for taking gifts and trips, most recently in 2004, when Justice Antonin Scalia flew on then-Vice President Dick Cheney's government jet to a hunting trip.

"There's no reason a judge or any public official should be taking gifts," said Samuel C. Stretton, who practices law in Pennsylvania and lectures on legal ethics.

"How can you be truly fair if you are breaking bread with people and they are paying for it?"

He was particularly critical of the New York trips: "That's not the Ron Castille I know," he said.

Castille responded in a statement Friday that he and the rest of the court were committed to "transparency": Candidates for judicial office must report all campaign contributions, and judges must disclose all gifts of $250 or more.

"To date, in my 17 years on the Supreme Court, no party has sought recusal on the basis of my financial disclosures," the statement said.

Castille said the court was reviewing recent revisions to the American Bar Association's model code of ethics. "The process we are following is deliberative and appropriate. I am confident it will produce the best results for the citizens of Pennsylvania," his statement said.

In a May interview, Castille defended his practice of accepting rounds of golf as gifts from friend. "I have friends with very nice memberships at golf courses that I could never afford," he said.

"I play golf with tons of lawyers," he added, joking that they usually let him win. He said the social ties never color his judicial decisions.

He declined a recent request for an interview about the gifts.

Saul Ewing, which had been involved in 20 cases before the court since 2007, said it wasn't trying to influence Castille in paying for his trips to the Pennsylvania Society.

Lawyer Timothy Carson, a Castille friend and former Saul Ewing partner, said the firm's managers had decided to pay Castille's way because they thought it was important to give the chief justice a chance to interact with the state's other top leaders.

"Certainly, if I were advising the chief, I'd say that's a place where he ought to be," said Carson, a longtime lobbyist.

For people on the bottom of the judicial hierarchy, the rules are a lot tougher. The state's 546 magisterial district judges, for example, cannot accept most gifts. Neither can Philadelphia Traffic Court judges.

And last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted tough new ethics rules for all 15,000 state and county court employees - including a ban on accepting anything from people with business before the courts.

"Many of these rules are fundamental to a good-faith relationship between the judiciary and its employees and the citizens of Pennsylvania," Castille said in a news release announcing the new measure.

Ethics experts say jurists should avoid taking anything that could give even an appearance of a conflict.

Most states have rules based at least in part on the ABA's model code, which says judges should turn down gifts that "might be viewed as intended to influence the judge's decision in a case."

"Pennsylvania clearly has to come into the 21st century," said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

The code makes exceptions for gifts from friends and relatives. At the same time, said Superior Court Judge Anne E. Lazarus, the jurist heading Castille's review of the ABA model code, judges should, at a minimum, make a formal disclosure when someone with close ties appears before them. That would include someone who had given them a sizable gift.

The idea is to give lawyers a chance to object to the judge hearing the case.

"Generally, if you're close enough to receive a gift, you can't try the case," Lazarus said, "but there are exceptions."

Several lawyers who appeared in cases where opposing counsel had given gifts said Castille had not disclosed those ties from the bench. In his statement, Castille said his disclosures provided "all litigants with information upon which they might seek recusal."

To be sure, Castille's gifts are dwarfed by the size of the campaign contributions collected by Pennsylvania's justices - much of them from law firms and lawyers. In 2008 and 2009, six justices raised an average of $1.3 million, with 30 percent of the total from legal sources, according to a study by the American Judicature Society.

The study found that in 60 percent of cases decided by the court in those two years, at least one of the justices had received campaign money from one of the lawyers or parties.

In 2003, when Castille ran for retention, he accepted virtually no campaign contributions, according to records.

Marks, whose organization has long advocated merit selection of judges, said the lack of legislative action on that proposal shouldn't derail other reforms.

"The whole issue of gifts to judges is an important one, regardless of how judges are raised to the bench," she said.

As chief justice, Castille, 66, is paid a salary of $191,876 and holds a special position of authority on the state's court of last resort. He and his fellow justices also supervise Pennsylvania's entire court system, with Castille in charge of Philadelphia courts.

A review of disclosure forms shows that Castille reports receiving many more gifts than do his fellow justices.

In some cases, the expenses are for activities related to his public role as chief justice. For instance, Castille regularly attends dinners, conferences, and golf outings by the Pennsylvania Bar Association and related organizations; last year, he listed a $2,465 trip to attend the bar's midyear meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The ABA code says judges may accept travel to bar functions or similar activities.

Other gifts are connected to private socializing with prominent friends - some of them with business before Castille and the court.

In 2003, Castille's law school roommate, Thomas A. "Tad" Decker, treated him to a plane ride and a ticket to the Fordham University Golf Classic at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., a top course that has hosted five U.S. Open championships.

Tickets to the fund-raiser sold for $1,000, according to a published report. Castille reported the value of the trip at $500.

Decker, managing partner at the Cozen O'Connor law firm, said the firm had bought the tickets as a favor to a big client. He said he had taken Castille along so Castille could help schmooze a big donor to their law school, the University of Virginia.

"He was along for the ride," Decker said, adding that Castille usually insists on paying his own way: "He won't even let me buy dinner."

Decker and Castille have remained close; in 1984, they bought a Shore house together in Avalon, later forming a real estate partnership to run the house with another friend, lawyer William G. Chadwick, Castille's former top deputy at the city District Attorney's Office. Chadwick is now doing consulting work for the courts, under Castille's direction.

In 2004, Decker became chairman of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, and Castille and the rest of the court ruled on a number of high-profile cases that challenged the board's decisions on casinos.

Castille at times sided with casino opponents, but he and the court backed the gaming board in several key cases, including a 2007 decision that turned back a constitutional challenge to the gaming law.

"That's not the kind of thing I would have forgotten," said Irv Ackelsberg, one of the lawyers for the anti-casino forces. "Certainly, I would have liked to have known that."

Decker said the board got no favored treatment from Castille.

He thought it would be "kind of silly" if Castille, because of their long friendship, could not hear any cases involving Decker or the Cozen firm.

"I think the standard is whether you can be fair or impartial," he said.

After exempting itself from the 1978 state ethics act, the Supreme Court adopted disclosure requirements for judges similar to those of the legislature.

They are free to accept gifts, but must report everything worth $250 or more. Where to draw the line is up to each judge.

"No one's ever taken me," Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery said of the Pennsylvania Society trips. "I don't condone that kind of stuff. I don't do it. But each judge or justice does their own thing."

McCaffery has accepted other gifts, though. In 2008, the Beasley Firm, a law firm, picked up the $380 hotel bill when McCaffery and his wife attended the Atlantic City Airshow.

And McCaffery accepted an oil portrait from Downingtown artist David Larned that he valued at $18,000. McCaffery said that he had donated the painting to the Philadelphia court district and that it would be hung in a ceremonial courtroom with portraits of other judges.

District justices say they are scrupulous in avoiding gifts from lawyers and were shocked that other judges weren't held to the same standards.

"I'm actually a bit stunned," said District Judge Carmine W. Prestia of State College, Pa., first vice president of the state association of district justices.

Early in his career, Prestia said, he turned down a group that wanted to give him an award at a high school fund-raiser.

Another officer of the association, District Judge Joseph S. Lindsey of Lower Paxton Township, Pa., thought a reporter was mistaken about the two sets of rules.

"How could that happen, if some [judges] could accept gifts and others could not?" Lindsey asked. "There is no way. That's why it's called the unified judicial system."

Golf is a frequent item on Castille's disclosures; one lawyer treated him to a round at Pine Valley in South Jersey, considered one of the finest courses in the world. A former Marine platoon commander who lost a leg in Vietnam, Castille is an avid golfer; he wears a prosthesis on the course.

With the exception of the bar conferences, the most expensive gifts on Castille's disclosures are the Pennsylvania Society trips funded by Saul Ewing. Castille said the total value was $5,200 over three years.

One leading legal ethicist called those expenses "inappropriate."

"It leaves him with a warm feeling for Saul Ewing," said former University of Pennsylvania law professor Geoffrey Hazard, now a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law.

"It's an issue of appearances," Hazard said.

The firm's managing partner, David Antzis, defended the practice by saying his firm has taken other judges to New York for what he said was "just a big bash to celebrate Pennsylvania."

But he declined to identify them, and the firm referred follow-up questions to Carson, now a lawyer at Drinker, Biddle & Reath.

Castille's disclosures also show that Carson paid his way at four charity golf events, at a total cost of $1,675.

"It appears from your e-mail that he appropriately self-reported the expenditures in satisfaction of applicable legal requirements," Carson wrote in an e-mail. "I guess the system worked!"

Just one other judge in the region reported similar travel. Delaware County Judge Charles B. Burr II for the last three years has reported unspecified trips paid by the law firm of Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky P.C., listing the total value of the trips at $4,200.

He did not respond to phone calls and e-mails requesting comment. Michael Barrett, the firm's managing partner, declined to comment.

Pamela Pryor Dembe, president judge of Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia, said she regularly attended the Pennsylvania Society - and paid her own way. She said she had never heard of any law firm picking up a judge's travel expenses.

"Damn! Nobody ever put me on the list," she joked.


Contact staff writer Mark Fazlollah

at 215-854-5831 or mfazlollah@phillynews.com.

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