2012-06-07 / Local & State

Corbett’s Judicial Pick Surprises Chief Justice

By Marc Levy

ASSOCIATED PRESS

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – 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 thenchief of staff, Bill Ward, and Corbett mentioned nothing of his plans.

Corbett nominated Ward, a long-time 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 Mc- Daniel, 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.

Darr said court officials hadn't specifically asked Corbett to nominate a judge for Allegheny County, although he also said that Ward is sure to be a good judge and the system will be lucky to have him aboard.

But the court system's financial challenges would be worsened if Corbett and lawmakers fill one seat with Ward, as well as a second Allegheny County vacancy, two in Philadelphia and one in York County, Castille told the Patriot News.

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