As partisans in the battle over Pennsylvania’s controversial voter ID law and a challenge to a legislative redistricting plan await decisions from the state Supreme Court, many know little about the man observers say will almost certainly decide the case.
UPDATE: The State Supreme Court has ruled on the voter ID law, making it likely it won’t be in effect in November. And Castille was joined by three Republicans and a Democrat in the ruling. See story here.
Most know Chief Justice Ron Castille as one of three Republicans on the six-member court. (A seventh, Justice Joan Orie Melvin is under suspension while fighting corruption charges.)
But Castille was once a major force in Philadelphia politics, the last Republican to win a significant citywide office in the city and, in 1991, a serious contender for the mayor’s office.
Castille grew up in South Florida, but landed in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital after he lost a leg as a Marine in Vietnam.
He came to like the city, and after attending the University of Virginia Law School, he returned to Philadelphia and made a career as a criminal prosecutor.
By 1985 Castille had ambitions to become district attorney. He’d planned to run for the office as a Democrat with the support of outgoing DA Ed Rendell. But Castille said he heard from Democratic leaders that they, and Rendell, were backing someone else — Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Williams.
“I said,`I can beat him as a Republican,’ so they said, `Go ahead and try,'” Castille recalled in a telephone interview last week.
So he did.
Against the odds
Castille, unknown to voters, launched a lonely campaign for the DA’s office in a city where Democrats outnumbered Republicans four to one, and a newspaper strike made it hard to get attention.
But he got some breaks. When he finally raised enough money for a TV ad, it happened to air as a hurricane was roaring up the East Coast. People were glued to their sets, so Castille got maximum exposure.
By far the biggest gift, though, was his Democratic opponent. Williams, who resigned from the bench to run, was 62, hard of hearing and a poor public speaker.
Dominic Del Pappa, who managed Castille’s campaign said it was a mistake by the leaders of the Democratic party.
“I felt the Democratic Party had started to take the city for granted, kind of picking the next person in line rather than picking the best candidate,” Del Pappa said. “I think the party did a disservice to the city and that gave Ron an opportunity, for sure.”
Williams refused a TV debate, and his handlers sent surrogates to community forums. Castille remembers making the most of it.
“I would debate the surrogates, and I would say, ‘Hey, you know, you’d make a pretty good DA. I’d be better, but you’d make a pretty good DA. The problem is you’re not the candidate,'” Castille said.
Castille wasn’t polished or flashy, but his plain-spoken style connected with voters. He surged ahead of the hapless Willliams, won the election and became a political star.
He was easily re-elected four years later. As the 1991 mayoral election approached, the city was broke, Democrats looked vulnerable, and city Republican leaders tapped Castille to run for mayor.
A formidable opponent
But first he had to win the GOP primary, and Castille found he had his hands full with Frank Rizzo, the tough, charismatic former mayor from the 1970s who was trying to mount a political comeback.
“And he would say anything,” Castille said. “That’s the guy of guy he was.”
Rizzo called Castille a drunk, said he was a mental case, and accused him of waving a gun around in a bar.
None of the specific accusations were independently confirmed, but the attacks distracted and bloodied Castille.
With a third candidate, financial analyst Sam Katz in the race, Rizzo eked out a narrow win and halted Castille’s political career in Philadelphia.
But in 1993, when he got a call from the state Republican chairwoman, who was looking to find a candidate for state Supreme Court.
“And I said I’ll look around and see if I can figure out a candidate,” Castille recalls, but, “They said, `uh, you don’t understand. The candidate we want is you.'”
On to the high court
Castille won the race and ascended to the court, becoming chief justice in 2008.
In that role, in addition to presiding over the court, he’s administrator of the state’s entire judicial system. He took criticism for his role in a complex financing plan for a new Philadelphia family court building, a matter now in litigation.
And ethics watchdogs have criticized Castille for accepting (and disclosing) gifts from law firms, including some with cases before his court.
In politically charged cases such as the voter ID and legislative redistricting, justices are often expected to vote along party lines.
But Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said Castille can defy expectations.
“Even though he was elected as a Republican, he has shown an independent streak, so I don’t think he’s always so predictable,” Marks said. “I mean, just look what happened a few months ago in the reapportionment case.”Indeed. In January, Castille cast the deciding vote against three Republicans on the court to toss out a redistricting plan for the state Legislature challenged by Democrats. A new plan is also before the court, and as with the voter ID case, legal observers say that all the arguments are really about persuading one man – Ron Castille.