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Motives for Chief Justice Castille's retention run scrutinized

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille

HARRISBURG — Chief Justice Ron Castille wants voters to give him one more 10-year term on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, even though he will serve only a year because of the mandatory retirement law for judges.

Castille is running for retention — a “yes” or “no” choice by voters on Nov. 5 — but he will turn 70 in March and must retire by Dec. 31, 2014. His campaign is fueled by a $50,000 contribution from the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, records show.

“I don't think most of the electorate realizes they'll be electing a lame-duck justice,” said Eric Epstein, founder of Rock the Capital, a reform group opposing Castille's retention. “He'll be serving one-tenth of his term.”

“The chief justice loves his job. And he's good at it,” said John Burkoff, a law school professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “And there is no sign that he's slowing down.”

Pennsylvania will “benefit from my continued service on the court,” especially during a “critical period as it recovers from the loss of one justice to a criminal prosecution and with another justice currently the subject of a federal criminal investigation,” Castille said in prepared remarks provided to the Tribune-Review.

Castille was referring to former Justice Joan Orie Melvin of Marshall, who was convicted of theft and other charges for using her staff to work on her campaigns in 2003 and 2009. She was sentenced in May to three years of house arrest.

Castille declined to identify the justice who is under federal investigation. In June, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the FBI was investigating Justice Seamus McCaffery because of fees his wife received for referring clients to personal injury law firms. Lise Rapaport, McCaffery's wife, has been his chief aide. Neither McCaffery nor Rapaport returned calls seeking comment.

Castille and McCaffery, a Philadelphia Democrat, have had a long feud, as documented in a Philadelphia Magazine story in June.

“By judicial standards, to speak publicly about your colleagues on the bench is fairly unusual,” said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

The remark surprised Tom Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre.

“This is an unusual time because the court hasn't seen this kind of turmoil since Rolf Larsen and the scandal surrounding him,” Baldino said.

Larsen was convicted in 1994 for fraudulently obtaining prescription drugs, but various controversies he was involved in simmered for years before that. An Allegheny County jury convicted him on two counts of conspiracy.

Castille, who makes $205,415 annually, said he deserves retention because of his “productivity” on the court. He said he authored 29 majority opinions last year — more than any other justice — while running the court.

“I have been credited with reorganizing the court system in Philadelphia, strengthening and improving the judicial discipline system and encouraging lawyers to render pro bono legal services to the indigent,” Castille said.

The decorated Marine Corps veteran, who lost a leg to machine-gun fire in Vietnam in 1967, is endorsed by former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who once was Castille's boss. Castille succeeded Rendell as Philadelphia's top prosecutor in 1986.

“I think he's done a terrific job as chief, both from an administrative standpoint and leading the court in decision making,” Rendell said. He cited Castille's deciding vote last year against a Republican-drawn redistricting plan as evidence that Castille is “fair and impartial.”

Too late for change

Castille appears out of options to extend his service beyond next year. The Supreme Court in June upheld the mandatory retirement provision at age 70 under the Pennsylvania Constitution. Castille supported the decision. A federal judge last month upheld the constitutionality of the age. An appeal has not been filed.

The state Senate last week approved a proposed constitutional amendment the House passed that would permit judges to serve until they are 75. It must be approved again by both chambers next session, but the soonest it could be on the ballot for voters to consider is 2015, after Castille must retire.

“In 2015, I am going fishing,” Castille said.

Castille's short final term will waste resources by requiring a gubernatorial appointment, a Senate confirmation hearing, a Senate vote and an election for a new justice in November 2015, Epstein said.

“It's certainly (Castille's) constitutional right to do that,” Baldino said. “He may be looking at this as a way to have his career validated. He strikes me as a man very proud of his accomplishments.”

“The ‘validation' is obvious,” Castille said. “I was rated 100 percent disabled. I chose not to lie down but to pursue a career in public service.”

No quid pro quo

As for Castille's getting $50,000 from one group, Tim Potts, a citizens' activist working with Epstein to defeat Castille, said the trial lawyers “certainly expect something in return.”

Castille said he has “never provided any special consideration to anyone based on campaign contributions.”

Nancy Winkler, president of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, said the group's political action committee met and decided to contribute $50,000 each to Castille and Justice Max Baer, a Mt. Lebanon Democrat seeking retention.

Baer, 66, who earns $199,606, will be able to serve at least four of the 10 years he's seeking before he reaches the mandatory retirement age.

Both justices “have a long record of supporting the civil justice system and equal access for our clients,” Winkler said. The donations are not an attempt to curry favor with the judges, she said.

“They do not (get anything in return),” Baer said, “and they know that.”

“I think if you ask any judge or lawyer in Pennsylvania, they'll say I've done a very good job on the court,” Baer said.“I have not heard anyone say, ‘You can only serve four years; you shouldn't run.' ”

Under state law, any money justices have left from a campaign can be used for another campaign of their own, a contribution to the party or pro rata returns to contributors, said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a judicial watchdog group.

Brian Bowling contributed to this report. Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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