Castille and Baer survive retention to Supreme Court despite looming forced retirement and judicial scandals

By Jon Campisi | Nov 7, 2013

Ronald D. Castille may only have one more year left until his

constitutionally mandated retirement from the bench, but voters didn’t seem to let that stop them from retaining the state Supreme Court’s chief justice for another term.

Castille and his fellow justice, Max Baer, both secured retention votes during Tuesday’s election, even though the two jurists won’t be able to carry out their elected 10-year terms.

The reason – the commonwealth’s constitution mandates all judges retire

at the end of the year in which they turn 70.

For Castille, that birthday will roll around in about a year.

Baer has about four years until he has to step down.

State election returns show that Castille survived retention by a vote of 68.54 percent to 31.46 percent.

Retention comes through a simple yes-or-no majority vote.

Clearly, the fact that his forced retirement is virtually right around the corner didn’t stop Castille’s supporters from coming to the polls to cast their votes in favor of retaining the 20-year veteran of the bench, one of two Philadelphians on the high court, the other being former Philly homicide detective Seamus McCaffery.

Castille, who served as Philadelphia’s district attorney from 1986 to 1991, is particularly known in recent time for his dedication toward reforming the city’s court system, officially known as the First Judicial District.

The U.S. Marine Corps veteran, who lost a leg in Vietnam, was first elected to the Supreme Court in 1993.

He was sworn in as chief justice in January 2008.

Castille’s professional biography shows that he was awarded with two Purple Heart medals for his military service.

Baer, a western Pennsylvania native who took his seat on the high court in early 2004, previously served as a deputy state attorney general, worked in private practice, and spent time as a Common Pleas Court judge in Allegheny County.

Aside from the fact that both justices would not be able to serve out full, 10-year terms because of their impending forced retirements, some questioned whether the two would be retained because of various scandals that have enveloped the judiciary in recent times.

The high court drew the ire of some citizens of the commonwealth who accused the justices of not doing enough to prevent what became known as the “Kids for Cash” judicial scandal, in which two former Luzerne County trial court judges were accused of taking kickbacks in exchange for sending juveniles to privately run detention facilities.

Castille in particular was also involved in a messy situation involving the construction of a new family court facility in Philadelphia.

The project to construct a new building was halted when it was discovered that the attorney retained by the courts to help secure a location for the new family court was double-dipping, since, in addition to getting paid by the judiciary, he was collecting money in his role as a co-developer on the project.

In late 2012, a civil case arising from the family court scandal ended with a $4 million settlement.

The attorney who was double-dipping, Jeffrey Rotwitt, and the firm he was working for at the time, Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, agreed to the multi-million dollar settlement as a means of closure.

Castille’s name came up in that scandal because at the time he served as the high court’s liaison to the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, the official name of Philadelphia’s court system.

The Pennsylvania Independent reported earlier this week that those opposed to Castille’s retention felt the justice should “pay a price for being the literal and figurative head of the judiciary in Pennsylvania during those dark days.”

The publication quoted Eric Epstein, an activist from central Pennsylvania who serves as the director of Rock The Capitol, a government reform group, as saying that the judicial branch of government is “supposed to be democracy’s failsafe, but in Pennsylvania right now the judiciary is failing.”

Castille, however, told the Independent that he and his fellow justices reacted promptly to the various scandals that tainted the judiciary as the high court became aware of them.

In a TV spot on the Pennsylvania Cable Network before he won retention, Baer told an interviewer that the high court wasn’t aware of the gravity o the “Kids for Cash” situation until after the damage was done.

At the time, Baer had said, the justices thought it was merely a case of a heavy-handed trial judge employing a zero-tolerance policy.

They soon found out different though.

Another scandal that unfolded under the watch of Castille and his Supreme Court was the federal “ticket-fixing” probe at the now-defunct Philadelphia Traffic Court.

In that case, a number of traffic judges were indicted on charges that they fixed motor vehicle citations for family, friends and the politically connected.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly subsequently voted to abolish the minor bench, which was the only one of its kind in the commonwealth.

Traffic Court duties have since been transferred over to Philadelphia’s Municipal Court.

And last, but perhaps not least, there was the scandal involving Joan Orie Melvin, the former state Supreme Court justice who is currently serving out a term of house arrest on public corruption charges.

Orie Melvin, who hails from a politically involved western Pennsylvania family, was convicted of using her then-Superior Court judicial staff to work on her campaign for a seat on the high court.

She most recently fought a portion of her sentence that requires her to pen apology letters to every single state judge in the commonwealth.

The Superior Court on Wednesday granted Orie Melvin's request for a stay of this portion of her sentence until her full appeal is heard. (See separate story in today's Pennsylvania Record). 

The Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judge who handed down the sentence wanted Orie Melvin to write the apologies on photographs depicting the disgraced former jurist in handcuffs.

As for the concept of retention, Pennsylvania judges who seek to carry out their work on the bench are generally retained for additional terms, with a few exceptions in years past, perhaps the most notable being the ousting of former Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro from his seat on the high court.

Nigro sat on the court around the time of the controversial legislative pay raise in 2005 in which the General Assembly voted in the wee hours of the morning to give themselves raises.

Citizens were outraged that the vote took place at a time when most people were sleeping, and therefore couldn’t comment publicly on the matter.

Judges, too, were given raises during that time, and the high court ended up determining that the legislature did not have the authority to then revoke judicial pay increases.

The ruling came after lawmakers voted to repeal the earlier pay raises.

Nigro ended up losing retention because of his participating in the vote.

Castille was quoted in the Pennsylvania Independent this week as saying that he still maintains that the high court’s ruling in that case was proper.

“The Legislature gave us a raise and tried to take it away,” Castille stated.

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