Retiring judge Ober traces love of law to his youth

Paul Peirce
| Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009

A judicial career that began in 1997 in a Westmoreland County farmhouse over homemade blueberry muffins will end Thursday.

Judge William J. Ober, a self-described sheep farmer, is hanging up his robe after reaching the state mandatory retirement age of 70.

On a recent morning, he retrieved a small case on the bench where he presides in a fourth-floor courtroom. Inside was a gavel, a gift from his wife, Carol, that had been carved from a walnut tree on his farm.

"I don't think I ever had to use it," Ober said.

Ober still tends his herd each morning on his 130-acre Mt. Pleasant Township farm before heading to the courthouse in Greensburg.

Atop a bookshelf in his office, amid an array of family photographs, is a snapshot of a beloved red Porsche 944. He bought it, used, in 1994 after he saw the car sitting along a highway.

The Porsche was sold five years ago, but the memories remain.

"It wasn't high end, but I liked the feel of it driving on the highway. I did park it at the farm ... but I never carried any sheep around in it," Ober joked.

He is equally proud of his legal career -- nearly 13 years on the bench after 32 years as an attorney. He takes pride in his family, which includes two grown sons, John and William, and four grandchildren. And he takes pride in his working farm.

It was in the 1840 farmhouse, which sits next to the county fairgrounds, that he kicked off his 1997 campaign for judge to replace retiring judge Gilfert Mihalich. His wife, who was at his side, baked the muffins.

Ober first ran for judge as a Democrat in 1981 and lost. A decade later, he lost again, this time as a Republican. But in 1997, Ober was able to secure the most votes out of all the judicial candidates, even as Democrats dominated in voter registration.

Then-Gov. Tom Ridge nominated him to fill Mihalich's vacancy. The Senate confirmed the appointment on June 12, 1997.

"It was a breakthrough," Ober said.

The beginning

In the 1950s, Ober attended Derry schools while living on Third Street. His father, the late William Andrew Ober, worked in the Westinghouse grinding and shipping plant. During summers, Ober worked at the plant, which manufactured ceramic insulators for the electrical industry.

His roots are evident in family photos that line the desk in his chambers. Among them is a photograph taken in 1945 of 6-year-old Ober, formally dressed, with two neighborhood friends, Jack McHenry and Ron Jones, as they entered the Gem Theater in Derry.

"There was this attorney in town, Henry E. Shaw. He was always serving the Lions Club, working for the borough, just working all around doing what he could do for the community," Ober said. "When I was growing up, I wanted to be the best person I could be and either become a minister or a lawyer."

Ober graduated from Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle in 1964, then served a six-month preceptorship with Shaw.

In 1989, he represented several farmers in a successful appeal of a $7.5 million county property tax increase. Commissioners ultimately were forced to refund it.

"I loved that one. One newspaper headline said 'Lawyer Beats City Hall,' and that's exactly what we did," Ober said.

On the bench, he presided over the 2003 trial of Ligonier podiatrist Karl Long, who was convicted of third-degree murder for killing his wife and is serving a 5- to 10-year sentence.

During that case, Ober made news after refusing to release the names of jurors who served on the trial. After a four-year battle, the state Supreme Court issued a 5-0 decision in 2007 that said the public had a constitutional right to learn the names of jurors.

Ober said he does not regret the decision because he acted in the best interest of jurors while protecting the sanctity of the judicial process.

"There's 10 to 15 states right now that don't permit the publication of jurors' names because it may endanger their safety. I legally understand what the Supreme Court said, but philosophically, I feel that the names and addresses of jurors should not be in the public domain," he said.

Americans have become more litigious, the judge said.

"Television programs give people information that is not always accurate with the real purpose and procedures of court. It used to be people would personally come into court ... we'd have people in these galleries watching firsthand how the system operates and know what to expect. Sadly, that does not occur all the time today," Ober said.

"Today, we have more and more cases filed on concepts that simply are not realistic," he said.

Attorney Stuart J. Horner Jr. of Greensburg, who served as a part-time clerk for Ober from 1997 until 2000, said he has the perfect demeanor for a judge.

"He's my friend, was a damn good lawyer and a damn good judge. It may sound funny, but he's one of the kindest people I've ever met," Horner said. "He is fair, smart and really conscientious, and you couldn't ask for more than that in a judge. I really never heard him say an unkind word to people."

"We even used to joke in the office that you couldn't get him mad ... he'd often have to tell me when he was mad. But don't get me wrong, he had a certain toughness ... he would get his Dutch up in court sometimes, but he was always a gentleman in court," Horner said.

Horner also had praise for Ober the farmer.

Horner's young grandson from Philadelphia had to do a report on a farmer who still rises early, so Horner telephoned Ober, who volunteered to show the boy life on the farm.

"The judge personally took him out, showed him all the stuff," Horner said. "And the whole while he's showing him the farm, his wife, Carol, is inside baking cookies for when they're through. That's just how the judge is."

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