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Castille cut independent figure as Pa. chief justice

| Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015, 11:05 p.m.

HARRISBURG — A statewide grand jury investigating a document leak by the Attorney General's Office should finish its work early in the year and “may have been extended to clean up details,” outgoing Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille said.

In a wide-ranging interview before his retirement, Castille talked with the Tribune-Review about current events and his legacy through 21 years on the court, 20 as Philadelphia district attorney and a tour as a rifle platoon commander in the Vietnam War, where he lost a leg in combat and became a decorated Marine.

Castille's last day as a justice Wednesday coincided with what was expected to be the end of the grand jury meeting in Montgomery County with the potential to determine the fate of Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat whose attorneys insist she has done nothing wrong and has broken no laws.

Though Kane said she admitted in grand jury testimony in November to providing documents to a Philadelphia newspaper, she contends the material was not covered by grand jury secrecy. Grand jury witnesses can discuss their testimony.

Castille — who agreed to a court-appointed special prosecutor to investigate Kane's office, an independent executive branch agency — had reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. Justice Thomas Saylor, with 17 years on the court, will become chief justice Tuesday.

“It's the end of an era,” Colleen Sheehan, a political science professor at Villanova University, said of Castille's departure.

Castille told the Trib his 420 majority and 230 minority opinions in varied cases will be “law that stands for decades.”

A Republican elected to the court in 1993, he was independent, siding with Democrats in a 2013 decision on legislative redistricting. He authored a landmark ruling that overturned portions of Act 13, which would have pre-empted local zoning for the Marcellus shale gas industry.

The ruling upended a signature piece of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's agenda, but Castille wrote that the law violated the state Constitution's guarantee of “clean air, pure water” and the “preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment.”

“I took an oath to support the Constitution,” Castille said, “not to support the Democratic or Republican party. I called them like I saw them. I tried to apply the law fairly, across the board, without bias or favoritism.”

Castille voted to send a voter ID law, supported by Corbett and a Republican-controlled Legislature, back to Commonwealth Court. That ultimately led to a decision overturning it. The Supreme Court ruling set a standard on legislation to require people to show identification at the polls, saying “government must show no substantial disenfranchisement under the law,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University Law School professor.

“Under that standard, it was inevitable (the law) would be overturned,” Ledewitz said.

Ledewitz often criticized Castille and faced a threat from him suggesting he could lose his law license for blasting the high court's 2006 decision to keep pay raises for judges while overturning them for the Legislature.

“He's never been accused of hesitancy,” Ledewitz said. “I've had my differences with Justice Castille, but since his retirement, I've had no problem praising his judicial record.”

Scandals involving the Pennsylvania judiciary took place on Castille's watch, though he personally did nothing wrong, Ledewitz said. Two Luzerne County judges took bribes, and former Justice Joan Orie Melvin of Marshall was convicted of using public resources to campaign for election to the court.

Any judicial misconduct “reflects on the entire court system,” said Castille, who led the push to suspend former Justice Seamus McCaffery for sending pornographic emails to the Attorney General's Office. McCaffery resigned in November in a deal to keep his pension.

“In general, I think Chief Justice Castille will be remembered as a successful administrator who improved Pennsylvania's Unified Judicial System, despite a number of tumultuous events during his tenure as chief justice — including the ‘Kids for Cash' scandal in Luzerne County, the ticket-fixing scandal in Philadelphia and the resignations” of Melvin and McCaffrey, said Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College. “He was tasked with addressing more judicial scandals than any chief justice should have to.”

Some controversies were directly related to Castille, Kopko said, such as gifts he accepted from litigants and listed in his disclosure reports, “but on balance, I don't think those issues will seriously alter his legacy.”

Said Sheehan: “I think he's a man of integrity. He's obviously someone who's given a lot for his country and the state.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or

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