State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Activists put PA chief justice on notice

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | May 20, 2013 8:39 PM
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Photo by Mary Wilson / witf


State government reform activists are getting a head start on their campaign to oust Pennsylvania’s top judge.

A report distributed by the group Rock the Capital lists 10 reasons not to keep Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille on the bench, blasting the judge for unethical behavior and incompetence in running the state’s court system.

“Yeah, I got their compilation of newspaper articles, if that’s the report you’re talking about,” said Castille in a phone interview Monday. He is running for a 10-year retention term this November. He called the analysis “slanted.”

Tim Potts, a longtime activist who wrote the report, acknowledged it is something of a layman’s handbook for reviewing the work of Castille.

“I don’t have access to Lexis and Nexis and all the rest of that,” said Potts, referring to LexisNexis, the online database of legal and public records. “What I do have is the Internet, and when I start Googling Justice Castille… that’s where I come up with 87 pages of documentation about what he’s done that I think is injurious to the state and why I think he should not be on the court.”

“The ‘No’ in November”

The Rock the Capital report criticizes Castille for writing the court’s majority decision allowing judges to keep a pay raise that had been repealed by the state lawmakers. It faults Castille for not investigating scandals-in-the-making sooner, like corruption in Philadelphia Traffic Court and in Luzerne County, where two judges were sent to jail for taking kickbacks to send children to juvenile detention facilities.

Castille said such accusations ignore constraints of the Supreme Court, which is not responsible for investigating alleged criminal behavior. He said once he found out about improper behavior, he acted to remedy it.

“They’re just looking at the headlines saying that I’m responsible for every negative thing that happened in the court over the last six years that I’ve been chief justice, which is an impossibility,” said Castille. “There [are] 15,000 court employees.”

The Rock the Capital report also holds Castille responsible for not establishing rules to prohibit nepotism in the state courts. Activists say family favors in the system have contributed to corruption.

Castille responded by noting he has ordered a study of the rules of judicial conduct, in which nepotism is part of the focus. He said an early draft of the study’s report has been returned to him, but it’s anybody’s guess when recommendations might be circulated and adopted.

Eric Epstein, founder of the group that commissioned the anti-Castille report (Epstein said it cost him $636), said the judge shouldn’t even be running for retention. Castille is approaching the state’s mandatory judicial retirement age of 70.

“I think the game changer here is the fact that he’s 69 and running for an office that he can only serve 10 percent of his term for,” said Epstein. “You know, when you talk to people and you get past the other issues, they’re having a hard time grasping why somebody wants to run for an office in which they can only serve one-tenth of it.”

Efforts are underway in the Legislature to increase the retirement age or erase it altogether, and cases challenging it are pending before the high court.

A challenge and a shrug

Potts extended an invitation to Castille to participate in a public debate before the chief justice’s retention election.

“I prefer to call it a discussion, because I don’t want it to be adversarial as I want it to be educational,” Potts said. “Now, it’s bound to be adversarial when we talk about whether he should be retained.”

“I’m game for anything,” said Castille. “A debate is nothing, but I’m not going to debate headlines with the guy. I mean, what’s he going to say?”

Castille suggested he might send Potts headlines of follow-up articles, presumably portraying the courts in a better light. “That would be a debate, right there,” Castille said.

The chief justice pointed to his administrative bone fides by touting his efforts to keep the courts open despite tight budgets. “We have kept every courtroom open in the state of Pennsylvania for the last four years in the toughest economic times that any of us have seen, unless you were there for the Great Depression,” Castille said.

It’s not a winning argument for Epstein.

“Just because you did good doesn’t mean you get to do bad,” Epstein said. “You should be doing good all the time.”

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