Likelihood of judicial appointment down to Hail Mary from Corbett

February 23, 2013
Washington County President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca

Unless the governor decides to go against the wishes of the state Supreme Court’s chief justice, it seems unlikely Washington County will get an interim judicial appointment to fill one of its two open seats at the courthouse.

“Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille has again called for extending the freeze on interim judicial appointments to fill vacancies at all court levels,” Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts spokesman Art Heinz said Friday in an email.

The county Court of Common Pleas has been operating with just four full-time judges and occasional help from visiting senior and active judges since Judge Janet Moschetta Bell retired in January. The other open seat came in June when Judge Paul Pozonsky suddenly resigned after 15 years on the bench amid reports he was the subject of a state investigation.

Should Gov. Tom Corbett make a nomination for the open judicial seats, it will be up the state Senate to confirm the less-than-one-year appointments.

State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, said Friday he spoke with the state Supreme Court’s deputy court administrator earlier in the day, and based on that conversation, it sounds as if the chief justice is leaning toward redirecting a judge from another county into a more active role in Washington, rather than pursue an appointment. He pointed out Corbett may disagree with the chief justice’s recommendations.

It wouldn’t be the first time a governor has made a controversial judicial appointment for Washington County.

In October 2010, Phil Melograne was appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell and confirmed by the Senate to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Judge Mark Mascara, despite the opposition of the Washington County Bar Association and objections from Castille.

At the time, the bar association noted there was an agreement between Rendell and Castille for a moratorium on judicial appointments because of budget constraints and that appointing a judge who planned to run for a full 10-year term would give an unfair advantage. Melograne ultimately lost on both the Democratic and Republican tickets in the 2011 primary and was succeeded by Judge Gary Gilman.

“It’s still in the air,” Solobay said.

President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca isn’t so hopeful.

“Lots of different people are talking, but I’m not as optimistic as I once was,” she said.

O’Dell Seneca said it was reported to her that five or six local attorneys had sent letters to the governor indicating their interest in an appointment.

“I’ve told the Supreme Court, I’ve told the AOPC and I’ve told other judges — we have enough work for seven judges here, and there’s only four of us,” she said.

While she may not agree with the chief justice about the freeze, O’Dell Seneca said she was thankful the Supreme Court has allowed active Allegheny County judges to volunteer.

Among them is Judge Edward Borkowski, who as the former first assistant district attorney for Allegheny County was brought in by then-Washington County District Attorney John Pettit as the prosecutor in the capital murder trial of a South Franklin Township man for a 2003 double murder at a North Strabane Township tavern, but was forced to relinquish the role when he was appointed to serve as a judge.

Now, Borkowski will hear criminal cases several times a month while two other Allegheny County judges help out with the civil docket.

O’Dell Seneca said both the county’s increasing population and the area’s booming Marcellus Shale gas industry have had direct impacts on the court’s growing caseload.

On top of that, O’Dell Seneca said she and the other judges have appeals to handle, sentencing guidelines to set and opinions to finish that were left behind when Pozonsky and Moschetta Bell retired. She said they have 28 Post-Convocation Relief Act appeals from Pozonsky – more than half of which she is tackling herself – and a handful from Moschetta Bell.

“Those are things that require us to do something in the immediate future and entails more than just routine work,” O’Dell Seneca said.

With 20 open judicial seats statewide, Solobay said the governor’s office may let the appointments fall by the wayside to prevent a domino effect.

“They’re afraid that putting one or two here would open a floodgate,” he said.

Solobay said the vacancies should mean there is money in the court’s budget to fill the spots temporarily, adding that pension issues would be avoided since appointees would receive only salaries, not benefits. O’Dell Seneca said that since she’s been president judge, the court system has been given only one-half of 1 percent of the state’s budget, and that continues to be cut.

Heinz said the chief justice has indicated that over the past three years, not filling vacancies has saved taxpayers more than $9.8 million.

Andy McNeil has been with the Observer-Reporter since 2011 as a general assignment reporter. He covers courts and education, and also serves as a photographer and videographer. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University, The Behrend College, with a degree in English; Duquense University with a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate, and Point Park University with a graduate degree in journalism and mass communication.

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