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Rendell in no hurry to fill county judge vacancy, office says

President Judge Muroski sees trouble looming with several empty slots on bench.

A spokesman for Gov. Ed Rendell said Thursday there is no timeline on when the governor will nominate a new judge for the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas.

Gary Tuma said the governor is still considering names to send to the state Senate for confirmation.

“It’s still under review,” Tuma said. “All I can say is that the administration is very sensitive to the situation in Luzerne County. The governor is being very, very careful to assure he nominates the right people.”

When Rendell was in Wilkes-Barre on Nov. 17, he told The Times Leader Editorial Board he had asked leaders of the county Bar Association to provide a list of names of possible candidates. Rendell said he was going to review the list and send a name to the state Senate as early as the following week – the week of Nov. 23.

“It’s taking longer than expected,” said Tuma.

County President Judge Chester Muroski did not take the news well. He said he isn’t surprised, though, noting that Rendell has yet to make an appointment of a new county controller – a post that has been vacant for two years.

“The governor has a commitment to the citizens of Luzerne County,” Muroski said. “He needs to direct his attention to the plight of the citizens, particularly litigants.”

Muroski again cited a considerable backlog of civil cases and numerous pending criminal cases as the main reasons for the urgency of his request.

“We need help,” Muroski said. “There are some people familiar with the court system and what needs to be done.”

Muroski cited the Hazleton gas spill case that has been pending in the county courts for more than seven years. He said the original suit had more than 700 plaintiffs and Judge Joseph Musto has been working diligently to settle many of the cases.

Musto has been serving the unexpired term of former Judge Michael Conahan. The term is up at the end of the year. Muroski’s term is also up, but he will remain as a senior judge. He said he intends to work every day, despite being paid for just two days per week.

Muroski said he has asked the state to allow visiting senior Judge Joseph Rehkamp to work more than two days per week. He said Rehkamp now lives in Luzerne County.

“Until we have a full compliment (of 10) elected judges in 2012, the governor must make appointments,” Muroski said.

The next judicial election is in 2012. Appointed judges will serve until then.

The county judiciary has been depleted in recent months. The seat formerly held by Mark Ciavarella remains vacant and Rendell can appoint a replacement at any time.

Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. did not win retention and will leave after the first of the year, at which time Rendell would submit another name to the Senate. Judge Ann Lokuta was removed from the bench earlier this year and her case is under appeal.

On Thursday the state Supreme Court issued an order suspending Judge Michael Toole with pay after federal charges were filed against him Wednesday.

William Amesbury and Tina Polachek Gartley won seats on the county bench in the Nov. 3 general election. They will be sworn in on Jan. 4 but must attend a two-week judicial training program before they can hear cases.

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