Castille Plans New Court Run

Philadelphia Inquirer

Judicial turnover could bring major change to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court over several years, but Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille isn’t ready to leave the bench one day sooner than he must.

The former Philadelphia district attorney, elected to the court in 1993, will hit the mandatory retirement age of 70 next year. Even so, he plans to run in the fall for another 10-year term knowing he’d have to cut it short.

“There’s a couple of projects I think I should be here for, at least until 2014,” he said.

Four other justices will reach 70 between 2016 and 2020. And Justice Joan Orie Melvin has been suspended while awaiting trial on criminal charges that she used state employees to help her get elected.

If Melvin were ousted and if the age-70 rule remains in effect – it is being challenged in a pair of similar lawsuits – six of the seven justices would be gone within eight years.

“It would be a completely new court, except for” one justice, Castille said. “That’s a huge changeover. It will have an impact on the court system of Pennsylvania.”

“It would be a real sea change,” said Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonprofit group that labors to improve the justice system.

Along with Justice Max Baer, 66, whose term also is expiring, Castille has filed notice of intent to seek retention in November.

Castille originally ran as a Republican, Baer as a Democrat. But party affiliation isn’t listed on retention ballots. Neither man will have opposition. Voters will simply say yes or no on keeping them.

Castille angered GOP leaders last year when he sided with Democrats in two key cases — one that struck down a legislative reapportionment, another that led to a temporary halt of the state’s new voter-ID law.

“His friends wish he’d stay, and his enemies wish he’d go,” said Philadelphia Republican leader Michael A. Meehan, hastening to add: “I’m a friend.”

Castille has been chief justice since 2008. Next in line by seniority is Thomas G. Saylor, also a Republican.

No organized opposition to Castille’s retention is expected. Both the reapportionment case and the voter-ID case will be back on the docket this year. A GOP leader speaking not for attribution said no one was eager to antagonize Castille while those matters are unresolved.

Retention elections typically have been routine in Pennsylvania, one of 39 states that elect at least some judges, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

In recent years, only one Supreme Court justice, Russell Nigro, has been ousted. Nigro had the bad luck to run in 2005 amid a voter uprising over a move by legislators to grant pay raises to themselves and to judges.

But Castille is wary. Court elections have become more politicized since he last ran in 2003. He may have to raise campaign cash for the first time.

“It is something that I really don’t want to do,” he said. “When I ran 10 years ago, I spent $200 out of my own money,”

Castille said another matter gave him pause: his physical condition.

A decorated Vietnam veteran who lost his right leg in battle on his 23d birthday, Castille uses crutches. He said it had been harder to get around since he injured a shoulder last year. He tumbled over the hood of a car when he was hit while crossing a Northeast Philadelphia street. (He did not file a suit.)

He said he would like to stay to finish an overhaul of Philadelphia Traffic Court. That court has been hit by a ticket-fixing scandal, and one of its judges resigned last year after a sexual-harassment complaint.

He’s also eager to oversee completion of the Family Court building in Philadelphia in June 2014. He said in 2011 that he had been hoodwinked by a lawyer at a Philadelphia firm into paying millions in unnecessary taxpayer fees for the project. He filed a lawsuit that was settled in November for $4 million.

“That is something I have been working on a long time,” he said of the Family Court building. “I’ve got a couple whip marks on my back to show for that effort.”

Castille is watching two recent cases — filed in a state court but moved to a federal court last month — in which some judges across Pennsylvania are challenging the mandatory retirement rule for all jurists.

Among the plaintiffs are four Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judges: John W. Herron, Benjamin Lerner, Sandra Mazer Moss, and Joseph D. O’Keefe.

The judges say the age rule violates the equal-protection and due-process clauses of the U.S. Constitution and Article I of the state constitution. They call it age discrimination and note that other officeholders, including the governor and legislators, are under no limit.

Castille said he would like to serve at least two years of a new 10-year term – until the end of 2015 – if the lawsuits prevail.

Leaving in 2015 would give the people the chance to vote on his replacement, he said. If he left in 2014 – a nonelection year for court seats – Gov. Corbett would nominate a successor.

He said the court’s workload would become overwhelming if several justices have to go in a short period. It takes time for any new justice to get up to speed, he said.

Saylor will hit 70 in 2016, Baer in 2017, J. Michael Eakin in 2018, and Seamus McCaffery in 2020.

“It’s a critical time for our court because of the loss of Justice Joan Orie Melvin for a significant period of time,” Castille said. “That is a lot of pressure for the rest of the court because we have to absorb her work.”

Open-seat Supreme Court races have been competitive. Republicans currently hold a 4-3 advantage on the court, counting Melvin.

This is an off year on the political calendar. No major state office – not governor or U.S. senator, not even treasurer or auditor general – will be up.

There will be one open seat on Superior Court, none on Commonwealth Court. Two Superior Court judges will seek retention.

Off years tend to favor Republicans, whose loyalists turn out more diligently for low-interest races. A Republican official said some in the GOP might have preferred to see Castille step aside this year. The next judicial election will be in 2015, when Democratic turnout could be ramped up by the mayor’s race in Philadelphia.

But Castille’s in no rush.

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