Two Washington County judges at loggerheads over court reporter

April 2, 2014
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Judge John F. DiSalle
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Washington County President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca is shown on the bench in this 2007 file photo. Order a Print

It was not business as usual at the Washington County Courthouse on Wednesday as two judges battled over a staffing matter.

Within 10 minutes of each other, President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca and Judge John DiSalle filed conflicting orders pertaining to DiSalle’s court reporter, Sharon Harmon.

O’Dell Seneca filed a written order at 11:32 a.m. that Harmon be immediately transferred from a hallway office near DiSalle’s chambers to the court administration office on the other side of the second floor. The president judge also ordered that the sheriff’s office assist in the move to ensure the transfer was not interrupted.

DiSalle countered, ordering at 11:46 a.m. that the court administration and court information technology offices cease and desist from any effort to remove personnel or equipment without his written permission. DiSalle also stated in his order that his courtroom, hallway and surrounding areas were under his authority and that they were not to be entered or disrupted without his permission.

The reason for the personnel transfer was not mentioned in either order.

The dispute began earlier Wednesday, disrupting motions court for DiSalle and an ongoing jury trial for O’Dell Seneca. The trial was supposed to start promptly at 9:30 a.m, but O’Dell Seneca did not enter the courtroom until 10:30 a.m. She apologized to the jury and stated that she had a court emergency that needed her attention. Attorneys planning to present motions before DiSalle had to wait until he returned to the bench.

Art Heinz, communications coordinator for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which oversees the state court system, declined to comment on the matter. However, he said authority lies with the president judge for the supervision of personnel.

Washington County Chief Deputy Sheriff Jim D’Alessandro said he and Sheriff Sam Romano reported to DiSalle’s office Wednesday morning for security purposes. D’Alessandro said they were there for roughly 45 minutes, and that at no point were they asked to arrest or remove anyone.

Both judges declined to comment on the matter, as did Harmon. She said she has been DiSalle’s court reporter since he took the bench in 2006. Harmon has been an employee of Washington County Court since 1967.

While Common Pleas Court judges are state employees, their staffs are employed by the county. The staff members are supervised by the judges.

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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