Karen Heller: Chief Justice Castille should forgo gifts

A tournament golfer swings at the prestigious Pine Valley Golf Club, where Castille has played as a guest.
A tournament golfer swings at the prestigious Pine Valley Golf Club, where Castille has played as a guest.
Posted: November 28, 2010

Chief Justice Ron Castille reported receiving thousands of dollars in gifts, rounds of golf, and travel expenses over the years from powerful law firms, civic leaders, and associations.

This, I'm sorry to say, is perfectly legal in Pennsylvania, the land that ethics forgot.

"We call that ordinary social hospitality," Castille said Friday. "You can't be nice? You can't be, like, social?"

Since 2007, Saul Ewing L.L.P., a firm with 237 lawyers, has treated Castille to the annual Pennsylvania Society bash at Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria, with last year's trip worth $1,900. During those three years, the firm was involved in around 20 cases before the state Supreme Court.

"I didn't take an oath to be a monk, a priest, a nun," Castille told me, arguing that he can legally accept such hospitality, dutifully report the gifts, and still be fair and impartial.

The offices of the Philadelphia district attorney, Pennsylvania attorney general, and U.S. attorney enforce strict guidelines prohibiting staff from receiving gifts from people with whom they do business. Federal judges are also forbidden, the exception being the U.S. Supreme Court.

So why don't state judges adopt the same standards?

Castille loves to golf. The golfing judge has played the region's top courses, frequently as a guest of powerful individuals and companies.

"I have friends with very nice memberships at golf courses that I could never afford," Castille told The Inquirer's Mark Fazlollah and Joseph Tanfani. "I play with tons of lawyers," he said, joking that they usually let him win.

Castille argued that accepting such hospitality never affected his judicial opinions. In 17 years on the court, "I have barely, if ever, recused myself" because of a relationship, and he's rarely been asked.

In an Inquirer review of almost 150 commonwealth judges, Castille led the pack in receiving gifts, including travel. Only one other judge - Delaware County's Charles B. Burr II - reported similar travel subsidized by the kindness of a law firm.

It's not surprising that law firms, business leaders, and charities want to befriend and gift Castille. He's the most powerful man in Pennsylvania's judiciary, a good man to know.

What's surprising is how often Castille accepted these gifts, and why he wasn't more suspicious of the donor's motivation to gain access, stature, bragging rights.

Repeatedly, I asked Castille about the appearance of taking such gifts, the very suggestion of impropriety and whether he would change his personal policy. "They can't find any pattern of favoritism," he said.

Castille is a wounded, decorated Vietnam War hero, the former D.A. of Philadelphia, an experienced jurist. "If somebody thinks that for a $200 golf game I would jeopardize my entire career in public service to my country, to my city, to my state, then there's nothing I can do about that, then that's what they're going to think," Castille said. "But there's no way I would ever do that."

You know what? I believe him. But Castille ought to question accepting these gifts, especially as other states and his own court condemn the practice.

Last month, Castille's court adopted strict new ethics guidelines for the 15,000 state and county court employees - including a ban on gifts from people doing business before the court. Magisterial district judges and Traffic Court judges are also banned from taking such gifts.

Of the state and county court employees, Castille said: "They're a little different in that there are 15,000 of them. And they're at the point where every case comes up through the system, so there's probably a numerically greater chance that these individuals are going to meet with some lawyer who's trying to get some favorable rulings in front of them in the lower court system."

Life is different at the top. Not lonely, better.

Castille earns $191,876 in salary in addition to his Marine and city pensions. He can well afford the $200 in fees when he visits these courses. Soon, his salary will increase by $3,262 because judges, legislators, and top administrators will receive a 1.7 percent raise, demonstrating that when it comes to cutting costs, elected officials consider themselves last.

Castille also has a $25,000 expense account. Why didn't he pay his own way for the Pennsylvania Society?

"For years, I would put it on my expense account, until we [the state] started getting into economic difficulty," Castille said. "A law firm kindly enough sponsors me, and I don't charge the taxpayers. But I report it, as required."

Many states have adopted a version of the American Bar Association's model judicial code, which instructs judges not to accept gifts "that would appear to a reasonable person to undermine the judge's independence, integrity, or impartiality."

This year, Castille asked Superior Court Judge Anne E. Lazarus to review the ABA code and make recommendations. "My committee will be looking at the code," Lazarus said, "taking into consideration certain constitutional rights that judges give up when they become judges, and what should be the floor and aspiration in judicial conduct."

I asked if the appearance in accepting such gifts damaged the court's reputation for impartiality. "Appearance of propriety is an overarching theme of the judicial canon," she said.

She believes her committee's recommendations will be ready in January. Of 2012.

Why in Pennsylvania do legislative pay raises occur overnight but ethical progress, adopting reforms that seem obvious and necessary, requires almost two years?

"It's a deliberative process," Castille said. "That's why we're looking. We could adopt the same exact thing that we applied to 15,000 employees."

So do it now.

"Judges should be prohibited from accepting gifts. Disclosure is not enough," said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. "When judges accept gifts from lawyers whose firms come before them, it creates the same problem when judges fund-raise and collect campaign contributions during elections. It gives the appearance of justices for sale."

On the plus side, Castille reported his gifts. On the downside, he took them.

One of the many problems with the court's policy is that only deep-pocketed firms, individuals, and organizations are treating the chief justice to golf outings, trips, sports tickets, and meals.

The chief justice sets the bar for judicial conduct. As a jurist, as an elected official, as a public servant, Castille serves the public. His reputation and actions should set the standard.

Castille shouldn't do anything to have his behavior, or interests, called into question. That he has to defend these actions strongly suggests he should stop immediately, not more than a year from now, when, it is hoped, the committee recommendations will counsel him to do just that.

The Pennsylvania Society gala occurs in two weeks. Saul Ewing is not hosting the chief justice this year.

Who's paying? "So far, it's me," Castille said. "And the hotel rooms are $900. That's one hour of a lawyer's billing rate."

He's still not sure of his plans. "Maybe I'll go up on the train and then come back," he said. "But I'll probably take the Acela."

Castille is right: He wasn't elected a priest or a monk. He was elected a judge, accountable to the citizens of the commonwealth. His actions should be impeccable. If he goes to New York on his own dime or from the court account, as he should, then he's starting to get it.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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