Pa. chief justice suit over building deal raises complex issues

Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald Castille is suing his former lawyer and a Philadelphia law firm, alleging he was duped into shelling out millions for a Family Court building project that could have cost far less.

Castille’s former counsel, Jeffrey Rotwitt, disputes the claim. Rottwitt said he never tried to hide the fact that he was paid by the court and also was getting a cut of the development fees.

This case is going to bring up some thorny questions, said Lynn Marks, the executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a statewide nonpartisan group.

“We’re really in uncharted waters here. Usually it’s up to the Supreme Court to select the venue. I understand that the First Judicial District filed a motion seeking the recusal of the entire bench of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.”

Marks said she can understand why the parties discussed settling the dispute before the suit was filed.

“It’s real sticky here because what happens if it goes to the Supreme Court? Should the whole court have to recuse? Should the chief justice have to recuse? And I would think so,” she said.

“Or if it’s moved to another county’s court, should they have to recuse because they are under supervision of the Supreme Court?” she said.

Marks said because the rules of recusal in Pennsylvania are lax, it’s really up to the individual judges to decide.

Zack Stalberg, president of the watchdog group The Committee of Seventy, said the lawsuit is a good step. But he said he has another concern–he wants Castille to release a report that might give insight into his own behavior.

“The report was commissioned by him and done by a close associate of his,” Stalberg said. “It cost the public nearly $800,000, and he promised to release the report. It hasn’t been released. Bill Chadwick, who conducted the investigation, was instructed to investigate the entire deal, which would have included what the chief justice’s role in all this was.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal