Since the beginning of this year, the Washington County Court of Common Pleas has been like a 747 flying on only three engines. Fully staffed at six judges, it is operating now with four because of the departures of judges Janet Moschetta Bell and Paul Pozonsky.
Tuesday, voters in the county will have the opportunity to start filling those two vacancies, and, thankfully, they have several qualified candidates from which to choose. From a field of eight candidates, four could potentially emerge from the primary election, since all of them have cross-filed for spots on both the Democratic and Republican ballots. As voters ponder their choices, they should give particular weight to experience and temperament, not just name recognition fostered by aggressive advertising.
In this pack, we believe Mike Lucas is a particular standout. Having previously run for judge in 2005, and bringing an impressive résumé that includes work as a solicitor for two school districts and a borough, civil and criminal trial experience and duties as the county’s lead assistant district attorney, Lucas would be a strong addition to the bench. He also has the unqualified esteem of his peers, with 126 members of the Washington County Bar Association giving him a “highly recommended” ranking in poll results released earlier this month. No other candidate came even close to receiving such a wholehearted vote of confidence from their colleagues, and we concur with their judgment.
We were also impressed in our interviews with the candidates by the depth of experience and equanimity of Blane Black. A respected veteran of the Washington County legal scene, he is the president of the bar association and, among an impressive list of credentials, presided over scores of child and spousal support cases as a support hearing officer for the county. That is perhaps the one area of law where emotions are most inflamed and being a firm but calm mediator is of paramount importance. Black has also been the solicitor for the Washington County Department of Tax Revenue, and with the possibility of many property tax disputes being brought before the court as reassessment looms, Black’s knowledge in this area could be particularly useful.
There is only one sitting judge in this competition, and that is Valarie Costanzo. Having served as a district judge for the Cecil Township area since 1998, she has presided over a long list of civil and criminal cases, along with landlord-tenant disputes, traffic violations and has issued arrest and search warrants. Having dealt in the nuts and bolts of law for almost a decade-and-a-half, and having acquired a reputation for honesty and competence, moving on to the common pleas court would be a natural next step for Costanzo and a benefit to the residents of Washington County.
Thomas Fallert has been the mystery man in this race, a “Thomas Who?,” if you will. A graduate of Washington & Jefferson College and a Peters Township resident, he has a practice in Bethel Park and so is not the known commodity that most of his competitors are. In fact, in the bar association poll, the greatest number of votes Fallert received was in the “no response” category, owing to his low profile. He has also conducted a correspondingly low-key campaign. But Fallert shouldn’t be blithely dismissed as a Tommy-come-lately. An able trial attorney, he has appeared before judges in 19 Western Pennsylvania counties and in Philadelphia. Fallert places a premium on dignity and respect being maintained in the courtroom, and believes that his broad-based courtroom experience gives him a deep understanding of what it takes to be a judge. If he becomes a judge, we have little doubt that Fallert would be diligent and thoughtful.
Other candidates in the contest are Alan Benyak, Lane Turturice, Peter Marcoline III and Charles Kurowski.