Tuesday, October 13, 2015

PA's chief justice critical of governor's move to nominate top aide to judgeship

PA's chief justice critical of governor's move to nominate top aide to judgeship



Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille had some critical words for the governor's decision to nominate his onetime top aide to a judgeship.

It's not all that often that you see the state's top justice publicly taking a swipe at the state's top government official. But Castille was clearly unhappy with Corbett's decision last week to nominate former chief of staff Bill Ward to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

Those paying attention to state politics know Corbett has come under pressure from top political advisers and fundraisers to make changes to his senior staff in Harrisburg in order to counter what they believe is the governor's growing image problem. The governor late last week announced that Ward was leaving the administration.

Read below for the Associated Press' account this morning of Castille and others' reaction to the Ward move:   


HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett surprised state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille with his first judicial nomination since he became governor, and drew criticism from a top Democratic senator, who said Corbett put a favor for a friend ahead of the duty to ensure the public's access to justice.

Corbett also bypassed the tradition of laying the groundwork for a nominee in advance with court officials and lawmakers.

Castille, a Republican, told the Patriot-News of Harrisburg that he met with Corbett a week before the Republican governor nominated his then-chief of staff, Bill Ward, and Corbett mentioned nothing of his plans.

Corbett nominated Ward, a longtime friend, last week to fill a vacancy on the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. But Castille suggested that filling the vacancy is unnecessary because Allegheny County's president judge, Donna Jo McDaniel, had told him her court's caseload has declined.

Leaving common pleas court seats vacant has been a strategy by Castille since April 2010 to save money. Currently, 17 common pleas court vacancies are expected by the end of the year, including some that exist now and some that will open because of judges who have reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, said Tom Darr, the deputy administrator for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

The court system needs $8.6 million more in the fiscal year beginning July 1 to cover its costs, but that does not include a new judge, which costs the state $200,000 for salary and benefits, Darr said. The county pays for a judge's staff.

In a statement, Corbett said serving as a judge was a long-time goal for Ward and that he is happy to help his old friend achieve it. Corbett also has denied reports that Ward's departure from his office is a concession to supporters who were critical of Corbett's ability to forge policy, work with allies in the GOP-controlled Legislature and broadcast a persuasive public message.

Ward, 60, a former state and federal prosecutor and colleague of Corbett's who lives in the Pittsburgh area, served 16 months as Corbett's chief of staff. Ward's nomination will require confirmation by the state Senate, and he'll remain on staff as an adviser until that happens, the administration said.

In nominating Ward, Corbett skipped the informal process of discussing a potential nominee in advance with court officials and lawmakers to ensure that the would-be judge is acceptable and can pass a Senate confirmation vote.

Because a judge's Senate confirmation requires a bipartisan, two-thirds approval from the Senate, a package of Republican and Democratic judge nominees are often agreed upon in advance and approved by the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said Wednesday he did not want to comment on whether he'd been notified or consulted by Corbett before Ward was nominated.

Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would first consider Ward's nomination, said Thursday that nominating judges should be about ensuring people's access to justice, not helping friends or rewarding political buddies.

"This was not framed as an opportunity to help the people of Allegheny County get justice," Leach said. "If that was the goal, what about the people of York County or the other counties with vacancies? Do they not deserve faster justice as well? Or is it about Gov. Corbett and how he wanted to help out a buddy?"

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Commonwealth Confidential gives you regularly updated coverage of the state legislature, the governor and the workings of the state bureaucracy. It is written by Angela Couloumbis in the Inquirer's Harrisburg bureau, based in the statehouse, and by the newspaper's far-flung campaign reporters.

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