Corbett needs Democrats' help with judicial nominee

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille has favored not filling court vacancies, citing state budget woes. File Photograph
Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille has favored not filling court vacancies, citing state budget woes. File Photograph (Staff Photo, File)
Posted: June 16, 2012

HARRISBURG - Guarding taxpayers' money. Imposing no new taxes. Making what Gov. Corbett called "hard choices" about cutting state aid to schools, colleges, the needy.

For weeks, debate over Corbett's proposed $27.1 billion annual budget has been dominated by these and other major concerns, reflecting the smaller-government themes of his administration.

Then along came the need to find a job for his exiting chief of staff - as a judge.

Corbett's nomination of William Ward for an Allegheny County judgeship has raised the hackles of his critics and the eyebrows of a fellow Republican, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille of the state Supreme Court. It has also caused the governor to go hat-in-hand to minority Democrats in the legislature - even as he seeks cuts in aid to their districts - to ask for a little help.

In late May, Corbett, yielding to the wishes of political advisers, replaced his chief of staff, Ward, with another top aide and nominated Ward for a vacancy on Allegheny County Court - Ward's "dream" job, the governor said.

It was just one job for an old friend, but judgeships in Pennsylvania don't come cheap, monetarily or politically. If the state Senate confirms Ward, a well-regarded lawyer, he will get a state-paid judicial salary of $169,000. And to win confirmation, Ward needs a few Democrats: Republicans rule the Senate, 29-20, but it takes a two-thirds vote to confirm a judicial nominee.

To be sure, governors having to horse-trade with legislators to get what they want in a budget or an appointment is nothing new. And no one has suggested Ward is unqualified - bar screening panels gave him top grades when his name came up for previous judgeships.

But his nomination comes at a time when the state judiciary, too, is facing budgetary pain - a $8.7 million shortfall, according to the man in charge, Castille. That is why the chief justice was content to keep various lower-court vacancies unfilled for the last two years.

So Corbett got Castille's attention when he nominated Ward - along with six other candidates for court vacancies in Allegheny, York, and Philadelphia Counties. Typically, governors nominate several judges from different counties at once to make the package more attractive to legislators from both parties and different parts of the state.

Castille pointed out that such a package would have a seven-figure price tag in salaries and benefits.

If a handful of vacancies "are filled in this little political thing they are going to do," Castille told the Harrisburg Patriot-News, "that will cost us $1 million."

Castille has not replied to The Inquirer's repeated requests for comment.

Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said that, with the exception of Ward, the governor is simply responding to requests by lawmakers in those counties to fill those judgeships.

"The governor nominates who he believes is qualified," Harley said. "That's the way the process has been since the founding of the commonwealth. If that's political, well, it's part of the political process."

That view does not sit well with those who say Pennsylvania's way of picking judges is already too political.

"The judicial branch is a coequal branch of government and the chief justice communicated to the governor to hold off on vacancies because the budget is hurting," said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a group that for years has advocated replacing appellate-judge elections with a so-called merit system. "That's very problematic."

Thanks to the need for a two-thirds Senate vote, Corbett's package of nominations gives the Democrats a bargaining chip they have not had since he took office in January 2011. Senators such as Daylin Leach of Montgomery County, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, find themselves being courted by the governor.

Leach said he bristled when he heard Corbett had issued a statement saying he was nominating the 60-year-old Ward because it was Ward's "dream" to be a judge - at a time when Leach thought both parties had agreed to a moratorium on filling judicial vacancies.

"I wasn't objecting to Ward personally, but if there is a change in policy on vacancies, then it should be a rational process," said Leach, adding he would like to see criteria set for judicial nominations.

Castille told the Patriot-News that he asked Corbett to delay the nominations until next year to save money, in light of the courts' budget woes.

In 2010, a cash-strapped Castille had asked the same of then-Gov. Ed Rendell - who complied, but only for six months before he, too, began nominating judges to fill court vacancies.

In an interview Wednesday, Rendell said he did so only after county president judges came to him complaining of their case backlogs. "I ceded to the chief justice's wishes for a significant period of time," he said.

Corbett's spokesman, Harley, said that the governor and Castille had agreed to a one-year moratorium on judicial nominations, and that Corbett had stuck to that until the Ward nomination last month.

That nomination came after Ward, a longtime friend who had been a top deputy when Corbett was state attorney general, was replaced as chief of staff.

Corbett's new chief of staff is Stephen S. Aichele, the Chester County lawyer who had been his general counsel. The switch came shortly after The Inquirer reported that members of Corbett's inner circle of political advisers were worried he was having image problems, was sinking in opinion polls, and could end up a one-term governor.

Senate staff members said that a hearing on Ward and the other nominees is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday.

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) said he and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) met with Corbett this week to talk mostly about the budget - a rare closed-door meeting between the Republican governor and Democratic legislators.

Hughes said the discussion centered on education funding and job-creation strategies, and less on Ward's judicial nominations.

Hughes said there were no deals or promises made. But he acknowledged that Corbett needs Democratic votes to get Ward - not to mention the other court nominations - confirmed.

So, will Democrats ask for something in return? More money for schools or other budget items that are taking a hit? More for economic-development projects in their home districts?

When pressed, Hughes said: "If we have to play that card, we will."

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or or follow on Twitter @inkyamy.

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