Wolf nominee withdraws name for Supreme Court

Posted: February 25, 2015

HARRISBURG - A Centre County judge tapped by Gov. Wolf to fill a state Supreme Court vacancy is withdrawing his nomination after coming under fire last week for an e-mail that some claimed was racially insensitive.

Judge Thomas K. Kistler, the president judge in Centre County since 2012, confirmed Monday he is removing his name from consideration.

In a statement, Kistler made no mention of the e-mail or the furor surrounding it. Instead, he said that "several circumstances have developed here, at home, in Centre County, which have dramatically altered the legal system and require my full attention."

He did not elaborate.

Kistler, a 57-year-old Republican, had been backed by GOP senators who control the state Senate. With Kistler's withdrawal, Senate Republicans have canceled confirmation hearings on Wolf's second nominee to the high court, Ken Gormley, a Democrat and dean at the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh.

Wolf said he had not talked to Kistler before the decision and previously said he had not seen the e-mail. But the new governor said the process and the outcome was a learning experience.

"I was trying to give the conventional way you do things in something like this - you know, a Republican and a Democrat - and try to make that work," he said Monday afternoon during an interview in Washington, where he had been attending a governors conference. "And I think I learned a lesson: Do my own vetting and make sure I'm doing the right thing as far as I can tell - not try to make the deals."

His spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the governor does not plan to name new nominees, and the two vacancies on the high court will remain until the election in November.

Kistler and Gormley were chosen by Wolf to fill two high court vacancies after Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justice Seamus McCaffery retired late last year.

McCaffery stepped down amid an investigation into e-mails he sent from a private account that contained sexually explicit content.

The Inquirer reported Friday concern from legislators and others over an e-mail sent in December 2013 by Kistler titled "Merry Christmas From the Johnsons." The message depicted a black man and a black woman during what appears to be a jail visit. The man, smiling and wearing an orange prison uniform, sits behind a glass window.

Forwarded with a subject line that read best Christmas card ever," the message also includes cartoon depictions of Santa Claus and reindeer.

Kistler has confirmed that he had forwarded the message, but maintained that there was no ill intent.

Legislators and prominent lawyers criticized the e-mail as racially insensitive, and said it raised questions about Kistler's fitness for the state's highest court.

Wolf, in Washington this weekend for a national governors conference, said Friday that he had not yet seen the e-mail but was gathering information about it and would then review the nomination.

In his statement, Kistler thanked the governor and Sens. Jake Corman (R., Centre) and Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) "for their confidence in my ability to serve" on the court.

But, he said, "my primary concern has to remain the full and proper functioning of the Centre County court. Had the current circumstances been known in November, I would have not offered my name for nomination."

acouloumbis@phillynews.com

717-787-5934

@AngelasInk

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