What's the deal, Castille?

Chief Justice Ronald B. Castille is defending his practice of accepting rounds of golf as gifts. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille has set a poor example that no other Pennsylvania judge should follow with his frequent acceptance of weekend political junkets, dinners, golf outings, sports tickets, and plane rides as gifts from lawyers and businessmen.

The freebies are legal — because the court said so. But it’s time for the state Supreme Court, led by Castille, to change the rules that permit most judges in the state to accept such gifts.

Judges should pay their own way when they’re entertained or travel on their own time.
It’s that simple.

No matter what the outcome of legal cases, accepting gifts from lawyers and businessmen who appear before the courts creates a real impression that rulings from the bench are for sale to the highest bidder. (Millions of dollars raised for judicial campaigns create the same perception that justice is for sale, most voters say. But the remedy for that problem rests with state lawmakers, who need to face up to the need for merit-based appointment of judges.)

On gifts, the Supreme Court already endorsed a ban for 15,000 court employees and the state’s district justices, the equivalent of Municipal Court judges in Philadelphia. The gift ban was included in a sweeping set of new ethics rules that Castille says are “fundamental to a good-faith relationship between the judiciary … and the citizens.”

Under Castille, the court hasn’t banned county or appellate court judges from receiving gifts — only requiring that they publicly report gifts valued at more than $250. Such disclosure, which actually makes Pennsylvania’s rules for judges somewhat tougher than in some states, assures litigants a better chance of knowing whether parties to a legal case have outside ties to a judge. But it still leaves average citizens free to wonder whether court rulings are influenced improperly.

The disclosure rules don’t cover business relationships, either. Case in point: the chief justice’s Shore property venture with an old law school friend who went on to chair the state Gaming Control Board. Castille ruled both for and against casino opponents in cases, but in the same spirit of disclosure, litigants should have been alerted to his personal ties to then-board chairman Thomas A. “Tad” Decker.

While Castille has insisted that “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” he now says a court review might lead to altering the rules on gifts. In an interview Monday, Castille likened the issue to the public perception that campaign donations “as minor as $50 should be enough to disqualify someone from hearing a case where the campaign is a party to the litigation.”

Applying a gift ban to all judges will foster the idea that everyone — not just the glad-handers — gets a fair shake in the courts.