Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said that even though he has only a year left before reaching the state’s mandatory retirement age for judges, there are still many objectives he wants to accomplish while on the bench.
Castille, 69, who is seeking retention in the statewide Nov. 5 election—said criticisms about him being able to serve out only one-tenth of the decade-long term he would win if retained are exaggerated and not based on legitimate concerns.
“This happens all the time,” Castille said. “No judge in the state of Pennsylvania quits because they can’t serve out a full 10-year term. People work until they’re 70, and under the constitution they become seniors. That’s what I’ll do.”
Former state Chief Justices John P. Flaherty Jr. and Stephen A. Zappala and former Justices Nicholas P. Papadakos and Sandra Schultz Newman all retired within one to two years of gaining retention, according to Castille.
Former Justice Russell M. Nigro is the only justice in Pennsylvania history to fail to win retention, in 2005, in the wake of a furor over a judicial pay raise.
Castille said there are several projects he wants to complete before his time on the court is up.
One of the initiatives Castille wants to see through is the recently established Elder Law Task Force. The duty of the task force is to make reports and recommendations on issues involving senior citizens, including reforms for power of attorney and guardian ad litem, elder abuse, neglect and access to justice.
Additionally, Castille said he wants to push for constable reform legislation.
“There are about a thousand [constables] in the state of Pennsylvania. What we need now is legislation to address some of the issues, like what is the pay scale? And can they be political or not political?” he said. “We’ve already got our rules in place, now we need legislation.”
Another issue Castille said he would address is civil case backlogs in common pleas courts in the counties.
“We’re in the second review of civil case backlogs in every county in Pennsylvania. The [American Bar Association] standard for civil cases is two years,” he said. “We already had a survey that showed a lot of cases that were two years or older in the counties. Some of them didn’t clean up their dockets; cases were already disposed of and they’re still listed as active.”
Castille also said he wants to finish reviewing the new Code of Judicial Conduct, which would be issued early in 2014.
“At the rate we’re going, we’ll have a new Code of Judicial Conduct,” he said. “We had a committee studying it, a [Pennsylvania Bar Association] committee, and the ABA has a proposed Code of Judicial Conduct; so we’re looking at all three of those to come up with a coherent Code of Judicial Conduct that will guide all judges in the state, probably for the next 20 years.”
Reforms to the Philadelphia courts also take precedence, Castille noted, including tweaking policy in the criminal division and the rolling over of Traffic Court into Municipal Court.
In terms of the criminal courts, Castille said he would be focusing on “the pretrial detention issue, like who could be released without fear of committing a crime or failure to appear. We’re in the middle of that. That will complete the entire common pleas court criminal review and reform.”
Lastly, Castille said he wants to witness the dedication of the Family Court building in June of next year.
Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University School of Law professor, said that in terms of this election, no real anti-Castille front has materialized.
“The issues are the same. They’re the sort of issues that ought to engage the public,” Ledewitz said. “There are questions about corruption, the internal workings of the court, the pay raise—after all, Chief Justice Castille wrote the very unpopular opinion in which only the judges ended up with any money—so there was plenty of tinder, but nothing caught for whatever reason.”
Ledewitz said additional issues facing Castille’s court centered around its involvement in judicial discipline and the case of former Justice Joan Orie Melvin, as well as matters such as real estate deals and extrajudicial activities.
“There’s also questions of whether there is an air of impartiality and courtesy and professionalism on the court when you have the McCaffery and Castille stuff going on,” Ledewitz said, referring to publicly aired friction between the high court’s two Philadelphia-based justices, Castille and Justice Seamus P. McCaffery.
However, Ledewitz called Castille “courageous” for reaching across the party line to make rulings on certain issues and praised the “well-reasoned” opinions produced by the court during Castille’s tenure.
In terms of party politics, G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs and a professor at Franklin & Marshall College, said the current election is one of the least contentious he has ever seen.
With Democratic Justice Max Baer seeking retention alongside Castille, a Republican, Madonna said he thought the lack of debate was odd.
“There is no partisanship involved; one Democrat and one Republican up for election, and neither party has said, ‘Don’t retain the other candidate.’ Both of them are mum in terms of what they have to say about the other person,” Madonna said.
Castille said political affiliation was not a center-stage issue in the justices’ bids for retention.
“Max Baer and I both met with [Republican Party of Pennsylvania Chairman] Rob Gleason and [Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman] Jim Burn, and the Democrats are supporting me and the Republicans are supporting Max,” Castille said. “That issue is really off the table. There’s no really organized effort by each party to not support the opposite party candidate.”
Furthermore, Castille mentioned that it is rare for two justices to campaign against one another during retention elections.
“There have never really been two [justices] up at one time,” Castille said. “That hasn’t happened in ages. There’s usually not a big effort by the parties to take anyone out. Somebody said that the Republicans would be mad at me, but that means that the Democrats would be happy with me, and there’s more Democratic voters. It’s really a bipartisan support that backs Max and myself.”
Madonna predicted Castille will be back for an additional term.
“I would be absolutely stunned if he didn’t get retained,” Madonna said. “This is the lowest turnout cycle in the last four years. When you’re dealing with a larger municipality, low-turnout election, low public interest, it’s likely to be a good turnout for incumbents.”