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Cramer laments end of district court career

| Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 1:11 a.m.
Jesse Cramer
Jesse Cramer

After 30 years as a Magisterial District Judge in Belle Vernon, Jesse Cramer will hang up his robe Thursday.

But maybe not for long.

Cramer, 54, will retire Thursday as a district judge and await word on a possible appointment as a senior judge. Cramer was defeated in the May primary by Richard Kasunic II on both the Democratic and Republican tickets.

The race was for a judicial seat to preside over a district that combined the areas now covered by Cramer and Franklin Township Magisterial District Judge Dwight Shaner, who also will retire this year.

Cramer applied for senior judge status in July.

“I am retiring early because one of the criteria for becoming a senior is you could not have lost in an election,” Cramer said Tuesday. “I lost the nomination but I did not lose an election.”

In the meantime, Fayette County will assign a current senior judge to hear cases in Cramer's office, most likely Brenda Cavalcante. If and when he is granted senior judge status, Cramer would be assigned to fill his former seat until year's end.

“Any hearings scheduled still will be heard by another senior judge, hopefully it will be me,” Cramer said, laughing.

“After that, they could assign me anywhere in the state. Basically, you're just a fill-in if somebody has surgery or they need you to fill for a vacancy until they have an election or appointment.”

If not, Cramer could appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Kasunic's term is scheduled to start the first Monday of 2014, provided he passes a state certification test.

Either way, Cramer said it's difficult to envision a day when he will permanently put down the gavel. If the senior judgeship does not come through, Cramer said he would mull a run for another public office.

“We're not creatures of change, we're creatures of habit,” he said. “It's not easy, and I'm not happy to leave. It's not the way you want things to be, but you have to do what you've got to do and move on with your life.”

It's been a whirlwind year for Cramer, who thought he would be running unopposed at this time last year.

Things changed in March when the state Supreme Court ordered Cramer's district to merge with Shaner's.

Although the Supreme Court's order stated: “The vacancy for district 14-3-06 (Shaner's district) shall not appear on the ballot in the 2013 municipal election,” Fayette County authorities decided to allow the four candidates vying for Shaner's seat to run against Cramer for the consolidated district, including Kasunic, the son of state Sen. Richard Kasunic, D-Dunbar Township.

“The whole situation was just so odd that you have to sit back and shake your head,” Cramer said.

“It stinks of politics, but I'm not going to sit back and cry over spilled milk. … The numbers were against me. The population in (Shaner's) district is 21,900, and the population here is 9,112. I won nearly 4-to-1 in my old district where the people know me best, so I felt very good about that.”

As a result of his exit, Cramer estimates he'll lose approximately 42 percent of his pension. He would have qualified for the full amount in 2018.

“I look at it this way: My dad worked for U.S. Steel, and when he lost his job, he didn't get one penny of retirement. … They closed the mill and that was the end,” Cramer said.

“I know coal miners who had the same thing happened to them. In that respect, I think I'm very fortunate. Plus I had 30 good years at a job I liked to do.”

Cramer began his career in law enforcement, hired as a Belle Vernon police officer at age 18. Two weeks later, Cramer's police chief, Joe Kalamas, had a heart attack, so he was thrust into the job as interim chief.

He was later hired as Washington Township's first full-time police chief at age 21.

Cramer was appointed by Gov. Richard Thornburg in May of 1983 as the replacement for retired District Judge Andrew Turick. Turick had just defeated Cramer for the seat a year earlier. Cramer's original office was in Fayette City.

Cramer said his long stay on the bench hit him when performing a recent wedding at Lock Four Fire Hall in North Charleroi. Both the bride and groom told Cramer he had performed their parents' wedding ceremonies.

Cramer noted when he first donned the robe, local District Judges Charles Christner and Larry Hopkins were police officers in North Belle Vernon and Charleroi, respectively.

“It doesn't seem like it's been that long, it really doesn't. But when I stop and look, I'm dealing with grandkids of people I've dealt with back then,” Cramer said. “A lot of the guys I worked with in the district attorney's office when I was a cop are now retired judges.”

Cramer said he can't count the number of president judges, district attorneys and public defenders who've come and gone in his tenure.

“You see that evolution, that natural replacement of people in office or police chiefs and you start thinking, maybe now it's my time,” Cramer said.

Cramer said he's presided over some disturbing hearings, including a horrific homicide and several incidents involving children, but he tries to remember the lighter times.

“There was a guy who said, ‘I throw myself at the mercy of the court' then the guy just throws himself on the floor in front of me,” Cramer said. “It's a serious thing and you try not to laugh, but sometimes you just have to. I always say just when you think you've seen it all, there's always somebody else to prove you wrong.”

No matter what happens with his judicial destiny, Cramer will continue serving as athletic director at Belle Vernon Area and teaching certification classes for constables. He said he hopes people remember him as one thing: Fair.

“I've always tried to treat everybody the same whether the guy lives in a tent or a $500,000 mansion. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody deserves to be treated the same,” Cramer said.

“You can take the Albert Einsteins of the world, but to me, the judges who do the best are the ones with the most common sense. That's the approach I've always taken.”

Cramer said his last official act will be performing a wedding at the Belle Vernon fire hall 7 p.m. Thursday, a pleasant end to his three decades as a district judge.

“When most people retire, it's a happy day,” Cramer said. “It's not going to be a happy day for me, except for that. I guess if you have to go out as a D.J., that's the way to do it.”

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-684-2635.

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