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Re-elect or reject?

Scandal among peers has Burke concerned

Luzerne County Judge Thomas Burke Jr. is up for retention. He won his current 10-year term in 1999.

PETE G. WILCOX/THE TIMES LEADER

Luzerne County Judge Thomas Burke Jr., in his chambers, reflects on his family history serving the law in Luzerne County. His father, Thomas Sr., was an attorney.

PETE G. WILCOX/THE TIMES LEADER

WILKES-BARRE – Luzerne County Judge Thomas F. Burke Jr. said he hopes voters keep an open mind when they walk into voting booths on Nov. 3.

Since the judicial scandal broke earlier this year, the public’s eyes certainly have been opened wide, and what they carry into the voting booths is key to the futures of Burke and fellow county jurist Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. Both are up for retention. If successful, they will earn another 10-year term on the county Court of Common Pleas.

Burke, 62, took office in May of 1998. He was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Judge Correale Stevens, who won a seat on the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Burke was elected to a 10-year term in 1999.

Burke has been waging a grass-roots campaign, attending events all over Luzerne County to meet as many voters as possible.

“The ongoing corruption scandal certainly is on their minds,” Burke said. “I encourage them to keep an open mind and judge each candidate on his or her record.”

Burke stressed voters should consider the importance of judicial experience when casting their ballots.

“I urge people to review my record on the bench,” Burke said. “People that know me have pledged to spread the word on my behalf. At the same time, the reaction I’m getting from people who don’t know me has been somewhat guarded.”

Burke said voters have expressed some doubts about the entire judicial system and the members who compose it.

“I’m hopeful that when I am given the opportunity to set the record straight, I will be able to influence them to support my retention.”

Burke said he knows people want to know if he had any knowledge of the actions of former judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella that gave rise to the ongoing massive federal corruption probe.

“I can tell you categorically that I had no knowledge of any criminal misconduct involving any member of the court until January of this year,” Burke said. “By the time I had any significant concerns, it was my understanding that the most powerful investigative body in this country – namely the Federal Bureau of Investigation – had undertaken a full-scale investigation.”

Attorney Basil Russin, Luzerne County chief public defender, has appeared before Burke and Olszewski. Russin, 63, and Burke entered the legal profession about the same time.

From what I’ve seen as an attorney for 36 years, Judge Burke does what he thinks is right,” Russin said. “I can say the same for Judge Olszewski; both do what they think is right and that’s what a judge is supposed to do.”

Russin said a judge once told him that a judge is not supposed to make popular decisions but to do what they think is right based on the law. Regarding the scandal, Russin said he has heard all sorts of rumors.

“I hope they aren’t victims,” Russin said of Burke and Olszewski. “I hope they are retained. That’s from a professional standpoint and from the standpoint of a taxpayer.”

Former Luzerne County District Attorney Robert J. Gillespie Jr. said losing Burke would be “a tragedy.”

“Tom Burke is the most honest, hardworking guy I know,” Gillespie said. “I have never heard a litigant or another attorney say a bad word about the man; he is as fair as a judge can be and as honest as the day is long.”

Attorney Bob Davison said Burke has been an extremely loyal public servant.

I know first-hand how seriously he takes his oath of office,” Davison said. “He is a meticulous jurist whose reputation for honesty and fairness is beyond reproach. This is no accident.”

Davison said Burke knows that the source of the great authority vested in his office does not merely come from statutes and the common law.

“He knows, and has never forgotten, that his authority is dependent upon the citizens’ confidence in the integrity of the Court,” Davison said. “And, during his term on the bench, he has exerted great effort to guard and preserve that confidence.”

Burke said he has worked hard to be fair and impartial on the bench.

“My mindset has always been to play the cards you’ve been dealt,” Burke said. “I won’t waste a moment’s time on negative thoughts; my focus has always been on my contribution to the judicial system.”

Burke said he was 25 years old when his father – attorney Thomas F. Burke – passed away. Burke said his father was the single most influential person in his life.

“My father was a highly respected member of the Luzerne County Bar Association,’ he said. “I live by his example; he taught me the critical role that the justice system plays in our society.”

Burke became emotional when speaking about his father. He got up from his chair and walked to a wall of pictures of his late father, telling stories about each.

“He always said that the touchstone for an effective justice system is equal access to all citizens,” Burke said. “And we need judges who carry out their responsibilities in a fair and impartial manner.”

Burke said it was his father’s commitment to “doing it right” that influenced him more than anything else.

“He was an inspiration to me and I continue to conduct myself in the same manner,” he said.

Burke said he has presided over a broad spectrum of civil and criminal cases. He said he has handled miscellaneous court cases consisting of 4,000-plus protection from abuse cases, more than 1,000 summary appeals, 200-plus statutory appeals, 750-plus bail hearings, 1,000-plus civil discovery/scheduling disputes and several non-jury trials.

Since 2000, he said he has disposed of over 1,200 civil cases, conducted pre-trial conferences in all cases and status & settlement conferences as necessary. He has presided over more than 200 trials, including several criminal jury trials.

“I have had extraordinary success in disposing of complex class action litigation and also commercial injunction proceedings, drawing on my background of extensive and varied business representation during my 25 years as a lawyer,” Burke said.

He has handled more than 3,000 guilty pleas and related sentencings and revocation hearings, 750-plus divorce and related domestic proceedings, numerous miscellaneous court matters, eminent domain proceedings and bench trials during this time.

Burke said he has approached the campaign positively and he is confident as the election approaches.

“I can say, without reservation, that from my first day as a judge – May 22, 1998 – to the present, I have lived up to my oath of office,” Burke said. “Ultimately, it will be up to the electorate to judge my character, my commitment and my competence and I ask that process be undertaken with an open mind and by talking to people who have known me or have appeared before me or sat on juries in my courtroom. The public trust in our courts and justice system has been damaged beyond comprehension and I want to be at the vanguard in helping to restore it.”

Burke said he has always taken the role of judge with the utmost level of seriousness.

“There can be no greater trust given to an individual than that which has been placed in me during these past 11 years to interpret our laws, penalize offenders, protect victims and decide critical disputes between litigants,” he said. “I guaranteed ‘a level playing field’ during my remarks upon being sworn in as judge in 1998 and have made a consistent effort to always be fair and to maintain fidelity to the law in carrying out my responsibilities as judge.

“The task at hand has become much bigger than I ever could have imagined, but I remain committed, now more than ever, to being part of the solution.”

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