Castille is big name on Nov. 5 Pa. vote

Ronald D. Castille , 69, will have to retire at 70.
Ronald D. Castille , 69, will have to retire at 70.
Posted: October 22, 2013

HARRISBURG - In an otherwise yawn-inducing off-year election, voters will have one important question to decide on Nov. 5: Should they keep the most powerful jurist in Pennsylvania on the bench?

Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, a Republican, seeks to retain the seat he has held for 20 years, the last five as the leader presiding over a court faced with outside scandals and unprecedented internal turmoil.

And, at 69, Castille would be eligible to serve only one year of the 10-year term before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, creating turnover on the court once again.

Voters also will determine whether to retain Castille's colleague Justice Max Baer, a Democrat, who will reach the mandatory retirement age in 2017.

Critics who oppose Castille's retention focus on several court-related scandals during his time as chief justice and say his departure after a year would disrupt the court once again.

Castille, in an interview Friday, said that, although the conviction on political corruption charges of ex-Justice Joan Orie Melvin and the current FBI investigation of Justice Seamus McCaffery may have damaged the image of the court, he does not feel it has affected the court's work.

McCaffery is under investigation for fees his wife, who is also his top aide, received for referring clients to personal-injury law firms

"It does harm the reputation of the court. It does suffer when a justice gets convicted," Castille said. "It bleeds into the entire court."

Eric Epstein, founder of the government reform group Rock the Capital, said Castille ought to be bounced for not responding fast enough to the scandal involving Luzerne County judges and his handling of the construction of the Philadelphia Family Court building.

Epstein said tensions between Castille and McCaffery amounted to a civil war on the court that is embarrassing and that running for what amounts to a one-year term "makes a mockery of the retention process."

"The court right now is in a state of prolonged tension," Epstein said. "We have the potential to have the last three judges not serve out their 10-year terms."

Only one sitting jurist, Justice Russell M. Nigro, failed to win retention. He was ousted amid antigovernment sentiment over the ill-fated 2005 pay-raise vote.

Castille, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former Philadelphia district attorney, was elevated to chief justice in 2008. He has written more than 400 majority opinions during his tenure, some highly controversial.

He upheld the legislative pay raise and two legislative redistricting maps. He found corporations that own nursing homes can be sued for elder abuse and determined there must be probable cause for drug testing on students involved in extracurricular activities.

Castille points to the 54 new rules regarding juvenile defendants that resulted from the Luzerne County "Kids for Cash" scandal that sent two county judges to federal prison. After the convictions, he ordered records expunged for 2,401 of those juvenile offenders.

Castille, as the court system's top administrator, spent millions in legal fees - some of which were ultimately returned - in disputes connected to the construction of Philadelphia Family Court.

The Bar Association praised Castille's "steadying influence" and credited him for his handling of the court during a challenging period.

Castille said he would like to finish his court-reform plan in his yearlong appointment and see the opening of the Family Court building in the spring.

Baer seeks a second term, although under current rules he would have to retire in 2017. But if the bill to raise the age passes the full legislature in two consecutive sessions and is approved by voters, he could serve his full term.

Voters also will choose the candidate for an open seat on the Superior Court between Republican lawyer Vic Stabile, a former deputy attorney general, and Judge John McVay of the Allegheny County Court.

In addition, voters will decide whether to retain two sitting Superior Court judges: Susan Peikes Gantman and Jack A. Panella. Both received favorable recommendations from the Bar Association.

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