Lucas leaving rich career behind as he joins Washington Co. bench
When Mike Lucas dons a judicial robe for the first time Thursday, the transformation will be bittersweet.
Lucas will leave behind nearly two decades as a prolific assistant district attorney in Washington County and as a veteran solicitor for the Borough of Charleroi and the Charleroi Area School District.
In November, Lucas was elected to the Washington County Court of Common Pleas. The Carroll Township resident will be sworn in 9 a.m. Thursday in Courtroom No. 1.
“Bittersweet … that's a good way to put it,” Lucas said Monday. “You don't necessarily have to give up everything, but it is going to be quite different.
“You're not going to have the same opportunity to interact with people as you have in the past.”
Lucas spent his last full day at the district attorney's office Monday and relished his final round of chitchat among colleagues.
“One of the things that often happens is the attorneys will congregate and you have a little bit of a gab session and laugh about one thing or another that happened through the course of the day,” Lucas said. “Obviously, because of judicial canons, you can't go hang out in somebody's law office anymore.
“I'm not going to be around as many people and that flavor is not going to be there. Those days are gone, and it's those times you treasure because you sincerely enjoy the people you work with.”
Lucas may have grown up in the Beltzhoover section of Pittsburgh and graduated from Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, but the Mid-Mon Valley became a second home.
He began “gofering” for the Charleroi law firm Bassi McCune & Vreeland while attending Washington & Jefferson College in the late 1980s.
“It was more searching real estate titles and doing filings at courthouses in five different counties,” Lucas said. “After my first year in law school, I came back and clerked with them, which was more traditional research.”
Lucas has been an associate with the firm for the past 19 years in Charleroi, where his parents, Walter and Ann Lucas, reside.
“My parents moved down in the early 1990s and my sister has lived in Carroll (Township) since the early '80s,” Lucas said. “You could say it has become our adopted home.”
Lucas has served as Charleroi's solicitor since 2006 and the school district's since 2003. The borough has since appointed Alan Benyak as its legal counsel. The school board will retain Lucas' former law firm.
As a judge, a steady schedule with consistent hours will bring some normalcy to Lucas's career, as well as the lives of his family.
“Control of your own schedule is one benefit which I haven't had my entire career,” Lucas said. “It will be somewhat liberating, because I've been scheduled to be somewhere by someone else every day for as long as I can remember.”
Lucas made a mark as a prosecutor in the past decade, having gained more homicide convictions than any other Washington County attorney.
District Attorney Gene Vittone said his top assistant was “a true public servant” and will make “a great jurist.”
“The district attorney's loss will now be a gain for the county as he ascends to the bench,” Vittone said. “He has always put his heart and soul and effort into every case. He was always available for police officers, and I was honored to have his wise counsel and to work with him for 15 years.”
Despite the arduous and time-consuming preparation that serious criminal cases demand, Lucas said he'll miss the organized mayhem of the DA's office.
“There was a homicide case we worked this summer. I was standing in a conference room and there were four different conversations going with eight people,” Lucas said.
“I looked around, and in spite of the high stakes involved, one conversation was detailing one aspect of the case and in another conversation, another guy is talking about problems with his lawnmower. That's priceless.”
One aspect Lucas won't miss is the unceasing apprehension that comes with relying on criminal witnesses. There was no such thing as a sure thing, he said.
“It was always, ‘We talked to this witness last night. Are they coming? Are they here yet?'” he said. “I'm not going to miss at all that type of stress that interrupts the flow of a case and can upset everything you've tried to do in preparation for a trial.”
Lucas recalled a case in which an unidentified colleague lost track of two key witnesses during a homicide trial.
“I came out and said, ‘Where are they?' and he told me, ‘They said they hadn't had breakfast yet, and they'll be back in 15 minutes,'” Lucas said, laughing.
“These two were the kind of guys that were very hard to find. I said, ‘Do you realize in their world, 15 minutes means two weeks?'”
He said countless witnesses simply do not want to be there and are reluctant to testify, whether it is because of fear of reprisal or just the pressure of being involved.
“Are they going to show up and, if they show up, are they going to be cooperative? You always have that worry … and that's the nature of prosecuting,” he said.
In 2005, Lucas was one of nine candidates who ran for two judicial seats – one of which was captured by recently retired Judge Janet Moschetta Bell. Lucas said that despite losing that election, the lessons learned and contacts made were invaluable.
“Number one, you gain a whole new found respect for people in public office when you learn how much really goes into campaigning,” Lucas said.
“Number two, I got to meet so many people throughout the county that it probably saved me both time and treasure in this past campaign. … There's no better way to learn something than to do it.”
Lucas will preside in courtroom No. 6, used by Moschetta Bell until her retirement last year.
President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca has assigned Lucas to split the family law caseload with judge-elect Valarie Costanzo.
Lucas insists he's fine with the assignment, even though criminal cases have been his forte for so long.
Judge Gary Gilman will move from family to criminal cases.
“I talked to Judge Gilman and he said those family cases affect people as much as criminal cases, if not more,” Lucas said. “Are those the high-profile cases that get media coverage? No. But are they just as important to people's lives, and in some cases, more important? Yes.”
Sitting on the bench will present a new world, but it's one Lucas said he's more than ready to tackle.
“I'm not going to make anyone forget Oliver Wendell Holmes,” Lucas said of the noted U.S. Supreme Court justice. “I'm not going to be perfect, but it's the commitment to doing a good job that will make you better at what you do.
“It is going to be a challenge, and there are things I'm going to miss. But I'm looking forward to the challenge and to grow professionally and as a person. Hopefully, I can make a difference.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-684-2635.
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