by Joe Shaheeli
Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille was an Air Force brat during World War II and worried along with his family each time his dad flew a Flying Fortress into the shell-peppered skies over Germany and Europe.
His dad, with many missions, had the distinction of bringing every one of the B-17s he piloted back home for safe landings, though several of them were so badly torn apart after their bombing runs, it could be said the popular war song “Coming In On A Wing And A Prayer” was written for him. His dad carried that luck as he flew missions over Korea in that war.
With Marine Lt. Ron Castille, that luck ran out. He was severely wounded in Vietnam, losing a leg as a result of those injuries. He would have been killed had not a fellow Marine Angel Mendez rescued him, losing his own life in the effort.
His severe wounds landed him in Philadelphia, where he underwent surgery at the old Naval Hospital, spending 15 months in recuperation.
After his medical retirement from the Marine Court in 1968, he attended University of Virginia School of Law. Back to Philadelphia, he came to begin a career that led him to 40 years of public service, first as District Attorney for 20 years and then in the judiciary for the second 20, rising from the Court of Common Pleas to the state’s highest judiciary position, Chief Justice of this state’s top court.
Castille, like most long-time public servants, has picked up baggage through his career, finding himself targeted by one group or another. When the dust cleared, he was and is still standing. He’s weathered all the criticism well.
Now it his birthday, which has again earned him “favorite target” status. He’ll be reaching his 70th a year into his next term, if voters say “yes” to him in as one of the judges on the retention ballot this November. Under current law, he would have to resign. That has led some to suggest he won’t be seeking retention, for another 10-year term.
Rumors flurry, ranging from “He’ll run, spend a year and retire,” and more recently, “Look for him to retire shortly.”
But Castille told this writer he intends to run. “The plate is full. I need to see the successful inclusion of a host of reforms we have initiated for the entire court system, the kind of reforms which will reduce the long waits now suffered by those entering the criminal justice system, either as defendants or plaintiffs seeking justice.”
And he wants to see the Family Court move into its new headquarters at 15th & Vine and be there to cut the ribbon, scheduled for June 2014.
He laments the type of planning that has never taken into consideration the confrontations that could occur when defendants meet plaintiffs, especially as they walk into Family Court at 11th & Ludlow. Similar lack of planning, he recalls, removed a third bank of elevators from the Judge Juanita Stout Criminal Justice Center.
He has ordered the judges in that building to run through their calendars first thing in the morning as they normally do. Now, they must do so again around 11 a.m. This, he noted, has reduced “failures to appear” subpoenas by at least 25%.
Seems the culprit for these “nonappearances” is the notorious jams that slow up elevators in the CJC, stopping at every floor, going up and coming down. That has led to many defendants finally making it to the courtroom only to sign an appearance slip for a later trial date.
Another practice Castille has labored to end is unnecessary continuations caused by attorneys who knowingly take on several cases scheduled for the same day, hoping to delay their cases for months in order to discourage Commonwealth witnesses.
Justice Castille feels Gov. Tom Corbett’s delay in making appointments to the judiciary, especially to the one Supreme Court vacancy resulting from the resignation of Justice Orie Melvin, is a major problem for the Justices. He is worried the Supreme Court bench, now with only three Democratic and three Republican judges may come to case situations where they could find themselves in deep deadlock.
Also, he acknowledges, “There is a learning curve on the high bench. All Justices have gone through it and by year three they fully appreciate what is their responsibility. No matter whom Corbett appoints, that individual will have to run for a full term to the Supreme Court in two years, and time on the Bench for him is critical.”
A bill wending its way through the General Assembly would end the 70-year mandatory service cutoff for judges, made obvious by the fact many are fully alert and able to continue serving on the bench and do so as senior judges.
Should that not happen, Chief Justice Castille sees his role on the Supreme Court continuing as a “Senior Judge”, for which precedent has long been set.
In any event, Castille wants it known he’ll be making the campaign rounds throughout the Commonwealth, seeking “yes” votes for him and all other judges up for retention this November.