New judges sworn in at Washington courthouse

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“The King’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of the Exchequer had their own panels of judges; the special pleaders were known as sergeants and can be seen as the ancestors of the barrister. It was only to be expected that, in time, the sergeants would be promoted to judges.” – British historian Peter Ackroyd in “Foundation”

It could be said that two Washington County officials were “promoted to judges” of the Court of Common Pleas Thursday morning when they took their oaths of office, bringing the complement to its full strength of six jurists.

Lest anyone think that a “ladies first” rule prevailed, President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca said it was a coin flip that decided Valarie Costanzo would be sworn in first and join her new colleagues on the bench, with Michael Lucas following suit.

Costanzo, 44, of Cecil Township, and Lucas, 46, of Carroll Township, won both the major-party nominations in the May primary in a field of eight candidates, which meant there was no contest in the general-election balloting for judge.

Yet another promotion was related to the outcome of last year’s judicial race. Now that Lucas will be deciding cases rather than prosecuting them, District Attorney Gene Vittone said after the ceremony he has promoted Chad Schneider to the first assistant district attorney position that Lucas held until the close of business Tuesday.

Schneider, a graduate of Duquesne University Law School, has worked for the county since 2007. He often filled the role of “second chair” in high-profile courtroom dramas where Lucas was the lead.

“Chad’s going to take over some major cases,” Vittone said. “He’s going to step into some pretty big shoes, but I have total confidence in his abilities to handle it.”

Schneider later thanked Vittone for the honor and said, “I feel up to it.”

Among those who packed the courtroom during the oaths and enrobings was former judge Janet Moschetta Bell, whose retirement at mid-term created one of the vacancies. The other judge’s seat was open due to the resignation under a cloud of Paul Pozonsky, who now faces charges of wrongdoing while in office.

Taking oaths of office administered by O’Dell Seneca were District Judges Larry Hopkins of Charleroi and Joshua Kanalis of Centerville. In what appeared to be her first official act as a Common Pleas Court judge, Costanzo swore in her former colleague District Judge David W. Mark of Canonsburg.

Sheriff Samuel Romano, whose father and namesake died Dec. 20 at age 83, agreed that taking the oath of office for a third, four-year term was “bittersweet.”

Michael Namie, 49, who, like Romano, 48, is a Democrat, was sworn in for his fourth, four-year term as county controller. Both men are Canton Township residents.

Appearing for the first time at the courthouse event was the Washington County Correctional Facility Honor and Color Guard, a 10-member unit formed during the past year. They carried the United States, Pennsylvania and Washington County flags.

O’Dell Seneca announced that former Washington County commissioner Bracken Burns had planned to serve as master of ceremonies but that Burns’ triple-bypass surgery kept him from fulfilling the commitment.

Reached by phone Thursday as he was waiting to see his cardiologist, Burns, 68, who emceed a similar event two years ago, said, “I had agreed to it in early December, and then all hell broke loose.”

Burns’ doctor discovered the arterial blockages before they led to a heart attack and performed the bypass procedure Dec. 13.

“I actually think I could’ve done (the emcee duties), but I had a doctor’s appointment,” Burns said. “I feel good. Now that my heart has been renewed and I’m good for another 50 years, hold onto your hat. I intend to be at the next swearing-in.”

Another former official who could have easily passed up the ceremony was present at the courthouse Thursday as both a spectator and volunteer.

Richard Zimmerman, the Republican jury commissioner whose elected office was twice abolished by the Washington County commissioners, was a participant in a back-and-forth court battle in an attempt to save his job and that of other jury commissioners. The state Supreme Court last autumn sealed jury commissioners’ fate in the majority of Pennsylvania counties.

Zimmerman sat in the back of Courtroom No. 1, just two floors above the space he and jurors had used for 12 years during his three, four-year terms, the last of which had just expired.

“I know I don’t have to (go to work), but I’m going to,” Zimmerman said after exiting the courtroom, explaining that a member of his former staff had been unable to make it work Thursday. “I told Judge O’Dell Seneca I’d make sure her courts were ready to go on the 6th,” the first day of Washington County Court’s two-week trial January trial term.

“I’ll report tomorrow, too,” he added, then quietly headed back to the office in the courthouse basement.

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