One-on-one with Pa. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille

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Ron Castille's days as Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court are numbered.

Literally.

He's 69 years old, and the mandatory retirement age for judges is 70.

But in November he will run for a ten year retention. If he wins, he'll have a year to serve before stepping down.

“I think it's important that I stay,” Castille tells me during a 30-minute, one-on-one interview in Harrisburg's Judicial Center on Wednesday. “Not me personally, but because of the experience that I have.”

Forcing judges out at 70 is being challenged in federal and state courts. Could a 69-year-old Castille eventually rule on the fate of 70-year-old judges?

“That could happen,” he says with a grin. Even if he does rule and the mandatory retirement age gets tossed, it wouldn't become law in time to keep him on the bench.

Castille is concerned about the justice on the wrong side of the law. The high court is currently deadlocked at three Democrats and three Republicans because of the suspension and conviction of 7th Justice, Joan Orie Melvin—a Republican.

Castille said cases are ending in 3-3 ties, which means the lower court rulings prevail. Castille says that's frustrating for him and litigants who have spent time and money advancing to the Supreme Court, only to have it deadlock.

“It doesn't give any definite direction for the law or doesn't say what the law is. It's kind of like they say, kissing your sister.”

Castille worries that Melvin's conviction will give everyone in a black robe a black eye. He says he hasn't talked to her since her conviction but is annoyed her situation is hamstringing his court.

Melvin could be forced from the court by the sentencing judge May 7. She could be impeached, proceedings have begun in the House. Or she could make it easier on everyone by just resigning. I ask Castille if he'd recommend that Melvin do that.

“I'm not gonna recommend anything to her, but I will say her sister [state senator Jane Orie] did resign after she was convicted. Justice Melvin said she's gonna fight this to the very end, but the end might be coming up very quickly.”

Castille angered Republicans last year when he sided with Democrats and threw out the GOP-drawn redistricting plan. Castille insists that politics are a factor when judges are running for the bench, but shouldn't be in play when they rule from it.  

“Ten years ago we had said the way the districts were Gerrymandered, it was as far as you could go. And this time we said you went too far.”

Castille says a ruling on the newly drawn redistricting plan should be coming soon.

Tomorrow, in part two of our interview, Castille discusses whether judges should be selected or elected in Pennsylvania. He also has an interesting take on Attorney General Kathleen Kane. (Republicans probably won't like it.) And he weighs in on fellow Justice Seamus McCaffery and McCaffery's wife, who reportedly collected $821,000 last year for her work as a lawyer.

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