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Judicial retention ballot this year is not as easy as yes or no

People wonder if the county’s court en banc had any knowledge of corruption.

The stained glass on the ceiling of the Luzerne County Courthouse is finished.

clark van orden/The Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE – Usually judicial retention campaigns are a matter of formality. Incumbent judges need only to garner one more yes vote than no votes to win another 10-year term on the county Court of Common Pleas.

On Nov. 3, two Luzerne County jurists – Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. and Thomas F. Burke – are on the ballot for retention and with the stench and embarrassment of a judicial scandal still permeating the county air, a cloud of doubt hovers over the two candidacies.

“The judicial retention vote is decided by a simple majority,” said Charlie Young, deputy press secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of State.

That means each candidate only needs one more yes vote than no votes to retain his seat on the bench.

People ask and wonder every day if the county’s court en banc had any knowledge of the corruption that was going on inside the courtrooms of Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella – both facing federal charges of corruption and racketeering. The public wants to know what was known and when. Deciding how to vote has become a most difficult task for county voters as the November 3 general election approaches.

Art Heinz, spokesman at the Pennsylvania Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, explained what happens if a judge is not retained.

“Then a vacancy occurs in the office and the replacement process goes into effect: the governor appoints a candidate who is subject to confirmation by the state Senate,” Heinz said. “The confirmed appointee would serve until voters choose someone for a full 10-year term in the next municipal (odd numbered year) election.”

Attorney Bob Davison said many people continue to believe that the mere passage of time will repair the substantial damage done to the county court system by the ongoing scandal.

“But they are wrong,” Davison said. “There is no magical “political Sham-wow” that will wipe clean the toxins that have infected our courthouse. The scandal has strained the pillars holding up the dome and they have buckled a bit.”

Davison feels it will take time and the tireless effort of “those good men and women who have not been infected by that corruption” – the people that come to work for the county and faithfully do their job for the people of Luzerne County every day – to eventually eradicate the scars of the investigation.

Davison has been an outspoken supporter of Judge Burke. Both are registered Republicans.

“Throughout this painful tsunami in public confidence, Judge Burke has provided the necessary structural support to those pillars keeping the courthouse from collapse,” Davison said. “That is the kind of individual he is. That is the kind of judge we need to be on the bench when the flood waters of corruption recede, the filthy mud and stench have been washed away and the people of Luzerne County are once again proud of their courthouse.”

There are 10 slots on the county Court of Common Pleas. Three positions – those formerly held by Mark Ciavarella, Michael Conahan and Ann Lokuta – are vacant. Conahan’s position is on the ballot for Nov. 3. Joseph Musto is serving the unexpired portion of Conahan’s term. The other position on the ballot is that of President Judge Chester Muroski, who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 on Dec. 30. He is expected to apply for senior status.

Three people are running for the two seats – Democrats William Amesbury, 61, of Wilkes-Barre, and Tina Polachek Gartley, 43, also of Wilkes-Barre, and Republican Richard Hughes, 48, of Mountain Top.

Ciavarella’s seat was left off the ballot because the former judge failed to submit his resignation in time to be on the ballot. Lokuta was removed from the bench and is appealing that decision. Her seat is being held open and is not on the ballot.

According to the Pennsylvania Constitution, the governor “shall fill vacancies and offices to which he appoints within 90 days.” Gov. Ed Rendell did file a procedural “filler nomination” on July 20 that was later recalled. The current deadline for appointment is Oct. 16, but the governor could make another filler nomination to further delay appointing someone to the bench.

Here is the current makeup of the county bench:

• Chester Muroski, president judge, will turn 70 on Dec. 30; elected in 1981, term expires Jan. 1

• Hugh Mundy, 69, elected 1991, term expires Jan. 1, 2012

• Joseph M. Augello, 60, elected 1991, term expires Jan. 1, 2012

• Michael T. Toole, 49, elected 2003, term expires Jan. 5, 2014

• David W. Lupas, turns 45 on Oct. 21, term expires Jan. 7, 2018

• Joseph J. Musto, 65, appointed 2008, term expires Jan. 3, 2010 (Conahan’s seat)

• Peter Paul Olszewski Jr., turns 50 on Dec. 3, elected 1999, term expires Jan. 3, 2010

• Thomas F. Burke Jr., turns 63 on Dec. 16, elected 1999, term expires Jan. 3, 2010

Judicial elections are contested in odd numbered years, Heinz said. Since Mundy will turn 70 in May, he must retire at the end of 2010. His position and Ciavarella’s will be on the ballot for the 2011 election cycle. The governor could appoint people to fill the unexpired terms.

There are six senior judges hearing cases in county court. They are:

• Patrick J. Toole Jr., 76, Luzerne County, appointed in 2004

• Charles Alexander, will be 77 on Oct. 13, Clarion County, appointed 2009

• Carson V. Brown, 71, Clinton County, appointed 2003

• Richard N. Saxton, will be 72 on Dec. 2, Clinton County, appointed 2008

• Clinton W. Smith, will be 76 on Dec. 15, Lycoming County, appointed 2004

• Charles C. Brown, 72, Centre County, appointed 2009.

Senior judges must retire at age 78, Heinz said.

“It used to be 75, but was changed by a Supreme Court order on Nov. 20, 2007,” Heinz said.

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