Retain Ron Castille on the Supreme Court?
Just say “No!”
During his tenure, both as a justice and as chief justice, Ron Castille has distinguished himself for poor judgment, legal sleight-of-hand, intemperance, double-standards of conduct, and allowing corruption in our courts to flourish. He has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that he does not belong on the Supreme Court, either now or in the future.
Castille is One for the Ages.
Ron Castille has been on the PA Supreme Court since January 1994. He has been chief justice since January 2008. This year the 69-year-old Castille seeks another 10-year term on the court, even though the PA Constitution mandates that judges must retire at age 70. Barring a change to the Constitution (or a Supreme Court ruling that declares the Constitution unconstitutional), Castille must retire on December 31, 2014. Being able to serve one year of a 10-year term is just part of the overwhelming evidence that should convince voters to say “No!” to re-electing Castille.
Here’s another important reason: If Castille wins this retention election, he becomes eligible to be appointed as a “senior judge” after his mandatory retirement. However, if he loses, he cannot be appointed as a senior judge. Although senior judges are supposed to be appointed on a temporary basis, Castille has presided over one senior judge serving for a decade.
For this and all of the reasons below, voters should just say “No!” to Castille’s desire to remain on the Supreme Court. It is the only way voters can ensure that his tenure on the bench is over, and he returns to the status of private citizen.
Castille’s Pay Raise Decision.
Ron Castille was the author of the decision in the case challenging the Pay Raise of 2005. Writing for the court, he ruled the pay raise unconstitutional – except for himself and his fellow judges. This decision marked only the second time in the history of American jurisprudence that a court has refused to honor a clause in the law that said if part of the law was declared unconstitutional, the entire law was unconstitutional. It just happened to benefit himself and his fellow judges.
Even though he ruled the pay raise unconstitutional for lawmakers, Castille couldn’t bring himself to enforce his own ruling. He allowed lawmakers to keep the unconstitutional “unvouchered expenses” they had collected, like allowing a bank robber to keep the stolen money after being caught.
- “PA Supreme Court decides judges can keep controversial pay raises,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 15, 2006.
In his opinion, Castille also ignored the opportunity to stop the legislature’s increasingly frequent practice of enacting important legislation, such as the pay raise and the slots gambling law, without public hearings or public notice. This violates the explicit language of several provisions of the state Constitution that historically were intended to prevent precisely such legislative abuses. See the “Platform for Reform of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” below.
Castille and the Kids-for-Cash Scandal.
The worst abuse of judicial power in American history occurred under Castille’s watch. Over several years, two Luzerne County judges got at least $2.6 million in kickbacks for sending children to private juvenile detention facilities. Kids were denied counsel at a rate 10 times the state average. The Supreme Court had repeated warnings by other Luzerne County judges, the PA Department of Pubic Welfare, the PA Attorney General, and the Juvenile Law Center of PA. Castille ignored all of those warnings until the federal government began prosecuting the judges and Castille was forced to act.
Worse, Castille tried to cover-up his responsibility in an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News’s John Baer. “Well, you know statistics… There are lies, damn lies and statistics,” Castille told Baer. He also claimed, falsely, that “They weren’t our statistics,” as an excuse for failing to investigate the complaints. After the feds arrested the judges, Castille suddenly began an investigation.
- “PA Supreme Court owes Luzerne County kids an explanation and an apology,” Democracy Rising PA News, February 18, 2009.
- “Why does Pa. Supreme Court tread so lightly around juvenile-rights tangle?”, John Baer, Philadelphia Daily News, February 23, 2009.
- “Supreme excuses for failure in Luzerne County,” Democracy Rising PA News, February 27, 2009.
Castille in the Driver’s Seat at the Philadelphia Traffic Court.
Under Castille’s watch, nine current and former judges on the Philadelphia Traffic Court have been charged with conspiracy, wire fraud and mail fraud. Based on an investigation by the FBI, they are accused of reducing or dismissing traffic violations of business, political and social associates in exchange for personal favors such as free car repairs.
Castille sought to distance himself from the corruption with a report in 2012 that found ticket-fixing commonplace. Castille commissioned the report after FBI raids of traffic court offices in 2010 and 2011. The report implicated fellow Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery with whom Castille has a bitter feud (see below). The report’s release caused the other justices to remove Castille as overseer of all Philadelphia courts this year.
- “Nine current and former Philadelphia Traffic Court Judges charged in probe,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 1, 2013.
- “The Friends & Family plan at Philadelphia Traffic Court,” Karen Heller, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 28, 2012.
- “To the junkyard: Traffic Court’s a car wreck – let’s try something else,” Editorial, Philadelphia Daily News, January 15, 2013.
- Pennsylvania justices vote Castille out as overseer of Philadelphia courts,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 10, 2013.
Another Philly Court Supervised by Castille. Another Scandal.
Castille also supervised the fiasco of the Philadelphia Family Court’s new building construction, a scandal so egregious that The Philadelphia Inquirer called for his resignation as chief justice.
- “Castille must resign,” Editorial, The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 2, 2010.
Among the outrages documented in the investigation into Castille’s handling of the Family Court project are:
Conflict of Interest 1. Castille allowed one lawyer to represent both the Supreme Court and the owner of the property the court was considering for the new Family Court building. The lawyer was, in fact, a co-developer of the property and received payment from both sides of the deal. He was later fired by the law firm where he worked.
Conflict of Interest 2. The lawyer working both sides of the fence just happened to be a golfing buddy of Castille. The lawyer also represented a gambling casino in a case before the Supreme Court providing the opportunity for untraceable ex parte communication.
Payments without bids or a contract for a $200 million building. Castille was in a hurry to get the new building. He was in such a hurry that he authorized millions in payments to the double-dealing lawyer without any bids for the project or a final development contract in place.
$13.1 million gone with no new Family Court building. From 2008 to 2010, Castille paid $12 million in fees to the co-developers before the gravy train was sidetracked with nothing accomplished. One of the co-developers later won another $1.1 million settlement to cancel the deal.
- “Castille pushed aside doubts on court deal,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 26, 2010.
- “Castille had front seat in court fiasco,” Paul Davies, The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 2, 2010.
- “Family Court: Pay to go away,” Editorial, The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 29, 2010.
Castille Gives New Meaning to “Family Court.”
Like any other patronage haven, such as the PA Turnpike Commission, PA’s courts are rife with nepotism that has figured prominently in scandal after scandal. As chief justice, Castille has the opportunity to propose and advocate rules to prohibit nepotism, but he has done nothing to stop it.
The investigation of the Kids-for-Cash scandal (above) found that nepotism was an important reason why no one in the Luzerne County courts blew the whistle on the judges who were getting kickbacks for sending children to jail.
“Former judges Conahan and Ciavarella hired family members and friends to work in the courts. The Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice determined that this was an extremely detrimental practice. It contributed to a breakdown in professionalism and to a breakdown in public confidence. Ultimately, as some witnesses before the commission testified, the environment for corruption became more fertile. Court employees were less likely to speak out against judicial misconduct if they had personal ties to the judges engaging in misconduct.
“The commission is concerned that the employment of family members, close personal friends or political associates creates the perception that hiring decisions are not based on merit and competence and, thereby, undermines public confidence in the courts.
“It is therefore recommended that the Court Administrator of Pennsylvania undertake a national study to determine the highest standards and best practices for court hiring policies and present the findings of that study to the Supreme Court for review.” (p. 52, report of the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice)
Luzerne is not alone in allowing nepotism to run rampant. In 2012, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette documented an extensive set of family relationships and questionable practices with regard to hiring and salaries. The president judge of Allegheny County counted no fewer than four relatives working in the court system: both daughters and both sons-in-law.
But the case against the president judge is just for bad practice. Altogether, the P-G found 10 other judges in the county who had immediate family members working in the county court system. The American Bar Association’s Model Judicial Code declares that a judge “shall avoid nepotism, favoritism, and unnecessary appointments.” Most states ban hiring relatives in the courts.
- “In Common Pleas courts, family ties are everywhere,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 22, 2012.
- “Family ties still factor in county court hiring,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 16, 2012.
More recently, Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and her sister, Janine Orie, were convicted of corruption for using taxpayer funded staff and offices to conduct Melvin’s political campaigns for election to the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009. Janine Orie served as her sister’s administrative assistant for years, giving her a direct stake in the electoral success of her sister. She was convicted of using her office for campaign purposes and tampering with evidence.
- “Justice Orie Melvin, sister found guilty,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 22, 2013.
Finally, Castille and fellow Justice Seamus McCaffery have been feuding because, among other things, McCaffery’s wife, a lawyer, works for McCaffery and has been receiving referral fees from law firms that have cases pending before the state Supreme Court. According to five independent legal experts, making such referrals constitutes the practice of law, which would require prior court approval – from her boss/husband, Justice McCaffrey – that she did not obtain.
The amount of referral fees is not normally public information. However, one case that involved a juvenile required disclosure. The referral fee was $821,519.
- Referral fees given to wife of Pa. Supreme Court justice raises questions,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 5, 2013.
A Castille Tantrum That Snubbed a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
In April of 2007, Duquesne University Law School hosted an event honoring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Among those invited to attend was Ron Castille. He refused to attend because he didn’t like a tenured constitutional law professor at Duquesne.
Professor Bruce Ledewitz in 2006 had authored a 15-point plan for reforming the practices of the PA Supreme Court. He also had been critical of Castille’s ruling in the pay raise case, calling it a “judicial swindle.”
Not content to disagree with Ledewitz, Castille wrote to another law professor, “It is disgraceful that Duquesne Law School continues to provide the professor a forum to make these charges.” In an interview, Castille also said, “I hate to punish the law school, but whenever he [Ledewitz] is introduced, he is introduced as a constitutional law professor of Duquesne University Law School.”
The letter further threatened Ledewitz’s law license with action by the judiciary’s Disciplinary Board, which the Supreme Court controls. Ledewitz observed that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a document with which Castille has some familiarity, protects speech that is critical of the courts.
- “Justice, law prof in spat over comments,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 28, 2007.
- “Justice Castille releases critic-blasting letter,” Capitolwire, April 4, 2007.
- “Platform for Reform of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” Bruce Ledewitz, 2006.
Castille never met a perk he didn’t like.
According to a 2011 public opinion survey by Terry Madonna Opinion Research for Democracy Rising PA, 93% of PA voters want to prohibit public officials from taking anything of value from those seeking to influence their decisions. Unfortunately, only in elections – such as retention elections – do voters count with public officials.
How reasonable is the perspective of the voters? Let’s start with Pennsylvania’s own Code of Conduct for the Employees of the Unified Judicial System:
“Employees of the Unified Judicial System shall not solicit, accept or agree to accept anything of value from any person or entity doing or seeking to do business with, or having an interest in a matter before, the court or court-related entity by which they are employed…”
Then let’s add the American Bar Association’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct, which says:
“A judge shall not accept any gifts, loans, bequests, benefits, or other things of value, if acceptance is prohibited by law or would appear to a reasonable person to undermine the judge’s independence, integrity or impartiality.”
Nevertheless, Ron Castille routinely accepts gifts worth thousands of dollars from lawyers and law firms appearing before him as chief justice. They include paid trips to the Pennsylvania Society weekend at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, innumerable rounds of golf at some of the best golf courses in the nation, and air travel.
Ironically, if Castille were a judge on any other PA court, he couldn’t take accept such gifts. Why? Because rules adopted in 2010 prohibit gifts for the other judges and the 15,000 employees of the state and county courts, but not for Castille and his fellow justices.
- “Castille is accepting of litigants’ gifts, trips,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 2010
- “Untenable judicial ethics,” Editorial, The New York Times, November 27, 2010
One last perk: Luxury cars. In 2010, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review documented that the PA Supreme Court allows judges and justices to lease luxury cars at taxpayer expense for up to $600 a month, even though state fleet vehicles cost just $230. The luxury cars included a Cadillac Castille leased for $582 per month plus $130 a month for insurance.
This was at the same time that citizens were suffering through the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, and state government was slashing programs for schools, hospitals, and other services to ordinary citizens.
- “Critics: Judges’ luxury cars slap at taxpayers,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 28, 2010
Castille both refused to comment on his own lease or that of fellow Justice Max Baer, who leased his GMC Acadia from his brother (see the section on nepotism above).
We give the last word on this subject to the Delaware County Daily Times, whose last words in an editorial were, “Elected officials (and judges are elected in the commonwealth) should not be immune to the reality the taxpayers who support them face every day.”
- “Judges’ auto allotments drive state deficit,” Editorial, Delaware County Daily Times, December 1, 2010
Castille’s Premature Judicial Ejaculation.
In December 2007, at the Pennsylvania Society weekend festivities in New York City, Castille confronted Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Baer. “I told my staff if I got enough drinks and I saw you here I was gonna punch you right in the [expletive – the big one – deleted] nose,” he told Baer.
Baer had written a column about a gambling case, and Castille resented it. Nothing wrong with that. It happens. But Castille then went on to disclose the ruling in the case to Baer before the parties in the case knew what the decision was. While such a disclosure does not violate any judicial ethics, the entire situation hardly qualifies as a model of judicial temperament.
- “Some news from Pa.’s chief justice,” John Baer, Philadelphia Daily News, December 2007.
Non-partisan justice? How quaint.
One goal of a judicial system with integrity is to protect citizens from excessive partisanship by the legislative and executive branches. One goal of Ron Castille appears to be to inflict excessive partisanship on citizens.
On May 8, 2013, Castille wrote the opinion allowing unnecessarily gerrymandered legislative districts to take effect for the next eight years. In his opinion, Castille said, “…’political’ factors can operate at will – so long as they do not do violence to the constitutional restraints regarding population equality, contiguity, compactness, and respect for the integrity of political subdivisions.” (opinion at p. 45)
The legislature’s self-serving redistricting plan, which Castille approved for a unanimous court, violates many of these tests, despite plain evidence submitted to the court that other plans would more faithfully follow the Constitution’s requirements without the overlay of partisanship that Castille endorsed.
- “Political mess, but it’s legal,” Scranton Times-Tribune, May 10, 2013.
- “10 wacky state House boundaries in Pennsylvania,” Lancaster Online, May 12, 2013.
- “Legislative maps move residents to new districts,” Lancaster Sunday News, May 12, 2013.
72% of Pennsylvania voters want to amend the Constitution to change how legislative districts are drawn. (Terry Madonna Opinion Research for Democracy Rising PA, January 2012).
In the absence of an opportunity to do that, chances are the majority of voters would settle for a Supreme Court chief justice who actually cared about and enforced what the Constitution already plainly says.
Also available: Press release and video of press conference.
Photo by Tom Owad
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