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Vacancies a predicament for county court

| Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, 10:47 p.m.
Tribune Review
Judge Gary Caruso
For the Tribune-Rview
JDB O&A17 2 Judge John Blahovec at the Merry Mixer on Thursday, October 13, 2005 at the Westmoreland Bar Association's headquarters in downtown Greensburg. The event was a pre-holiday private shopping social to benefit the Westmoreland Bar Foundation. Bridge Photo / For the Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Judge Al Bell.

More than a third of Westmoreland County's Common Pleas Court will be vacant by next summer with the early retirement of three judges.

The vacancies, which cannot be filled before the next round of judicial elections in the fall of 2015, will leave local court officials struggling to cover the more than 13,000 new criminal, civil and family court cases filed each year.

“We don't know what we are going to do if there are no (gubernatorial appointments),” court administrator Paul Kuntz said.

Judges in Pennsylvania are required by state law to retire at 70.

Westmoreland County Judge John Blahovec, 62, will retire in early January after serving three decades on the bench. In April, President Judge Gary Caruso, 65, will leave the court. Caruso and Blahovec were both elected in 1985.

Judge Al Bell, 66, said he will retire from the 11-judge court next summer.

Gov. Tom Corbett could appoint replacements, although he has refrained from doing so in other jurisdictions to reduce a financial shortfall in judicial funding.

In an email, Corbett spokesman Morgan Wagner said it is critical that the court system be adequately staffed.

“We are aware of several vacancies in the Court of Common Pleas and, in consultation with numerous entities including those in the judicial branch, we will make a determination if there is a need for judicial nominations,” Wagner wrote.

Caruso said he wants to lobby Corbett to make appointments.

“With the volume of cases we have, it requires we have more judges,” Caruso said. “If we don't get appointments, we'll have to look to the Supreme Court to allow us to use senior judges.”

The court could be further shorthanded as Judge Debra Pezze has been on an indefinite medical leave since last fall and her return date has not been determined.

Four judges work in the criminal and family court divisions. Three judges are assigned to civil court.

With next year's retirements, court officials expect the civil court division to operate with just two judges.

Kuntz said some initial shifting of assignments early next year will fill some of the void.

In January, Judge Richard E. McCormick Jr. will rotate back to criminal court after serving a handful of years in the civil court division.

Judge Chris Feliciani, who has spent his first 10 years on the bench in family court, will move to civil court.

Meagan Bilik DeFazio, who will take office in January, will assume a seat in the family court division.

Kuntz said Senior Judge John Driscoll, who retired last year and has been presiding over a full caseload in family court, will continue those duties into 2014.

Blahovec is expected to take on some limited criminal court assignments early next year as a senior judge.

“There are some things that we'd like to do that we can't do, like drug court,” Kuntz said. “We could probably start a drug court if we get an appointment or two.”

County and court officials have looked to create a drug court program that is designed to help curb the burgeoning drug addiction problem in the county.

Caruso said funding for the proposed drug court has yet to be secured.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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