Pennsylvania voters face a decision next Tuesday: Do they return Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille to the court for another 10-year term, even though he’ll only serve a year?
The state’s mandatory retirement at age 70 for judges stands, despite a court challenge from several judges. There’s little prospect of a change any time soon.
Castille says plenty of justices have sought and won retention facing mandatory retirement within a few years. When a judge leaves, the governor appoints a replacement until the next odd-numbered year, when there’s an election.
Ask Pennsylvania grass-roots activist Tim Potts about Castille, and the one-year/10-year thing is about the last thing he mentions. He says Castille should be turned away because he’s been a disaster as chief justice.
“The scandals that have occurred on his watch are really horrible,” Potts told me. “The lack of competence in court administration has cost taxpayers millions and millions of dollars.”
Potts laid out his case against Castille this spring in a lively document for the gadfly group, Rock The Capital. You can find it, complete with links to research and video of Potts’ explanations, here. Castille disputes all this, of course, but you’d have to say his term as chief justice has been, well, eventful.
Potts notes we’ve seen a scandalous controversy over financial arrangements in the construction of a new Family Court building in Philadelphia, an unfolding mess in Philadelphia Traffic Court and, worst of all, the disgraceful “kids for cash” case in the Luzerne County court.
In the Luzerne County matter, Potts says the facts show that the Juvenile Law Center, the state attorney general’s office, and the state Welfare Department told the Supreme Court in the spring of 2008 things were seriously wrong in the court, and Castille did nothing until 2009, when federal authorities charged two judges with taking bribes for sending kids to a juvenile home.
Castille says he had no idea how serious the situation was until federal prosecutors made their move.
“No one came forward and said that, Jesus, these judges were on the take,” Castille said. “Once that happened, we immediately suspended them.”
Potts has a diferent view.
“If he didn’t know until the feds acted, that was willful ignorance and incompetence on his part,” Potts said. “It’s the worst judicial scandal in American history.”
I asked Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, what she thought.
“I do think the Supreme Court could have gotten involved earlier,” she said. ” But to the Supreme Court’s credit, especially the chief justice, they acted with gusto, and they appointed a master to look into what went wrong. They expunged the records of all the kids (unfairly detained).”
My sense is that Castille acted forcefully to straighten out Philadelphia Traffic Court. Potts says he’s tolerated a culture of corruption and nepotism in the court system for years that’s led to these scandals.
It’s an interesting and probably futile debate. There’s no active campaign to defeat Castille, and the fact is that only one justice has ever lost a retention election. That was Russell Nigro in 2005, when public outrage over a pay increase for lawmakers and judges was running high.