Former Common Pleas Court Judge Paul Pozonsky spent nearly 30 years behind the bench in Washington County, but Thursday found himself on the other side.
Pozonsky returned to the area from his new home in Alaska to face charges that he stole cocaine and misappropriated other evidence that was used in the cases he presided over.
The legal troubles are another chapter in a judicial history that includes both accolades and controversy.
Pozonsky was raised in the Cecil Township village of Muse and graduated from Canon-McMillan High School in 1973. He graduated magna cum laude from West Virginia University in 1977 and received his law degree from Duquesne University in 1980.
Pozonsky spent 13 years as the district judge for the McDonald and Cecil Township area while running his own private law office for 16 years.
He served as president of this area’s Special Court Judge Association of Pennsylvania and was nominated by the group in 1997 for the prestigious John Jeffers Memorial Award, given to individuals who are considered instrumental in leadership and professionalism in the courts.
That was the same year of his successful bid for a judicial seat on Washington County Common Pleas Court to replace outgoing Judge Thomas Terputac. His victory over Charles Kurowski in the May 1997 primary prompted then-Gov. Tom Ridge to appoint him to the seat, although Pozonsky declined to take the position early.
“I think what people want is to be honestly and fairly treated,” Pozonsky told the Observer-Reporter a week before the primary. “My background lets me make a decision. You may not like the decision, but I’ll make a decision.”
He was sworn in for the 10-year term on Jan. 5, 1998, in State College, Centre County, and took his seat on the bench a week later.
“I know I’ll be apprehensive wanting to be able to live up to the responsibility of this office, but not afraid of making an effort to do that,” he said at the time.
Valarie Constanzo, who just this week won the primary to replace Pozonsky on Common Pleas Court, was appointed to fill his magisterial seat in 1998.
That same year, Pozonsky was appointed to the ethics committee of the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges, giving the young judge greater influence over his peers. He was one of 15 judges on the statewide committee to offer advisory opinions regarding ethical concerns involving judges, Supreme Court justices and other judicial officers.
But trouble soon followed. His ex-wife, Mary Duffy-Pozonsky, sought a protection from abuse order against him in June 1999, claiming he shoved her inside the doorway of her home as he came to pick up their two children for a visit. No charges were filed by police, but the PFA remained in effect for a year.
Pozonsky also found himself at the center of several high-profile cases, including the first-degree murder trial of Michelle Sue Tharp, who was convicted in 2000 of starving her 7-year-old daughter to death and dumping her body in West Virginia. Pozonsky took the unusual step of playing the country music song “The Little Girl” on a tape recorder after the jury sentenced the Burgettstown woman to death. Tharp appealed her sentence in part because of Pozonsky’s decision to play music for the sentencing phase.
In 2004, Pozonsky and former Washington County District Attorney John Pettit established a drug treatment court that was designed to offer more flexible sentencing to nonviolent drug offenders. The court provided monitoring and regular drug testing to offenders, offering them incentives or penalties depending on their behavior.
Pozonsky overwhelmingly won retention to his seat in 2007 for another 10-year term.
But by the spring of 2011, former District Attorney Steve Toprani said he heard from various sources of “curious practices” about how evidence in his courtroom was being handled. Toprani eventually referred the matter to the state attorney general’s office, which launched a grand jury investigation.
Questions about why Pozonsky unilaterally decided to have drug evidence in multiple cases destroyed against the district attorney’s wishes led President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca to temporarily shut down the drug treatment program last May. Less than a week later, O’Dell Seneca decided Pozonsky should no longer be permitted to preside over criminal cases.
O’Dell Seneca would not comment on Thursday about what prompted her decisions, but she admitted the situation has made for a “very tough year” inside the courthouse.
Pozonsky resigned from his seat in a June 27 letter, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family and pursue a different professional path.
“My object has always been to try each case by extending fairness and respect to the respective parties and litigants,” he wrote in the letter.
He collected a partial pension payment of more than $200,000 and received nearly $8,000 in his first monthly payment for state retirement benefits.
His family and professional pursuits led him to Alaska where he and his wife, Sara, settled down. Pozonsky took a lucrative job as a compensation hearing officer for the Alaska Labor Department, although he resigned from that position in December just two months after questions surfaced about the hiring process and the political connections of his wife’s family.
Pozonsky has mostly stayed out of the limelight since that time until he voluntarily returned from Alaska and walked into a magisterial courtroom – similar to the ones he had presided over for nearly 30 years – on Thursday to face accusations that he obstructed the administration of law and stole drugs that were meant to be stored as evidence.