Corbett move to fill court seat a surprise
HARRISBURG -- Gov. Tom Corbett has surprised state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille with his first judicial nomination since he became governor.
Castille, a Republican, told the Patriot-News of Harrisburg that he met with Corbett a week before the Republican governor nominated his then-chief of staff, Bill Ward.
In a statement, Corbett said serving as a judge has been a longtime goal for Ward and that he is happy to help his old friend achieve it. Corbett also has denied reports that Ward's departure from his office is a concession to supporters critical of Corbett's ability to forge policy, work with allies in the GOP-controlled Legislature and broadcast a persuasive public message.
In nominating Ward, Corbett skipped the informal process of discussing a potential nominee in advance with court officials and lawmakers. Because a judge's Senate confirmation requires a bipartisan, two-thirds approval from the Senate, a package of Republican and Democratic judicial nominees are agreed upon in advance and approved by the Senate.
The governor, of Shaler last week nominated Ward, 60, of Mt. Lebanon to fill a vacancy on the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. Castille, though, suggested that filling the vacancy was unnecessary because Allegheny County's President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel had told him that her court's caseload has declined.
Leaving Common Pleas Court seats vacant has been a strategy by Castille since April 2010 to save money. Currently, 17 Common Pleas Court vacancies are expected by the end of the year, including some that exist now and some that will open because of judges who have reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.
The court system needs $8.6 million more in the fiscal year beginning July 1 to cover its costs, but the figure doesn't include a new judge -- which would cost the state $200,000 for salary and benefits. The county pays for a judge's staff.
The court system's financial challenges would be worsened if Corbett and lawmakers fill one seat with Ward, as well as a second Allegheny County vacancy, two in Philadelphia and one in York County, said Castille.
"If those five vacancies are filled in this little political thing they are going to do ... that will cost us $1 million," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said he didn't want to comment on whether he was notified or consulted by Corbett. Sen. Daylin Leach, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said nominating judges should be about ensuring people's access to justice, not helping friends or rewarding political buddies.
"This was not framed as an opportunity to help the people of Allegheny County get justice," said Leach, D-Montgomery. "If that was the goal, what about the people of York County or the other counties with vacancies? Do they not deserve faster justice as well? Or is it about Gov. Corbett and how he wanted to help out a buddy?"