War in the Supreme Court: Ron Castille and Seamus McCaffery Just Can’t Get Along

As allegations of impropriety pile up against Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, the real story may be his strained relationship with Chief Justice Ron Castille. Here, the inside tale of the very personal feud that’s tearing the state’s highest court apart.

Seamus McCaffery can—and often does—boast an even broader arc of a life story.

He immigrated from Ireland, settling in Philadelphia at age five. Seamus grew up in Germantown, joined the Marines out of high school, then became a Philadelphia beat cop and later a homicide detective. Early on, though, he wanted to be a judge. It frustrated him that cases against bad guys would get messed up, and punks would walk.

It took 11 years of night school to get a B.A. and a master’s from La Salle and a law degree from Temple. McCaffery practiced environmental law at a small firm, then won a spot on Municipal Court in 1993.

From the start, McCaffery’s courtroom was performance theater, with him meting out tough justice as if nothing pleased him more. A sheriff would escort yet another repeat visitor before him, to be met with:

“Remember what I told you? My favorite four-letter word is J-A-I-L.”

In 1997, McCaffery became famous for setting up an ad hoc court in Veterans Stadium to deal with the scores of fistfights that would break out during Eagles games; drunks were tried and fined on the spot. McCaffery would be offered his own Judge Seamus-style TV show, which he turned down, though he was still generally considered something of a grandstanding joke. Yet the Eagles Court, which was disbanded in 2003, put a huge dent in fan violence at games.

Dispensing justice in a high-profile forum fit him perfectly, because McCaffery is much more an out-and-about presence, with wonderful press-the-flesh political skills, than an adjudicator mulling the fine points of law. Some local pols think he should have taken a shot at becoming mayor. Or even governor.
But back then, when he was still a Municipal Court judge, McCaffery had a particular judicial goal in mind: a seat on the state’s Supreme Court. There, he could have a bigger impact on his city.

 

Castille and McCaffery didn’t know each other well when the latter was elected to the Supreme Court in 2007. But they rubbed each other wrong from the start. As chief justice, Castille took on too much, McCaffery believed; he didn’t move fast enough. When he came onto the court, McCaffery had been eager to work with Castille, especially on issues that would help their city. But Castille ignored McCaffery’s ideas.

For example: In Luzerne County, two Common Pleas judges were being paid off by the owner of two private juvenile facilities; the judges were giving youths with minor legal problems particularly harsh sentences in order to build business at the facilities. The Juvenile Law Center petitioned the Supreme Court in April 2008 to look into the violation of the kids’ civil rights, a petition the court sat on for months. McCaffery pushed and pushed Castille, told him the court needed to do something, needed to act.

“You’re not a fucking cop anymore,” the chief justice admonished him.

McCaffery offered to move to Luzerne County to personally untangle the mess. Castille ignored him.

The Supreme Court finally denied the law center’s petition without comment. Only when charges against the judges became public several months later did the court reconsider. That’s also when Castille got publicly enraged at the judges’ behavior.

This was exactly what would continue to drive McCaffery crazy: Castille controls too much. Administrative problems fester.

“Ron was never secretive when I was with him on the court,” says Sandra Newman, who served with Castille from 1997 to ’06. “But being chief justice changes things. There are far more administrative duties.” Castille says that as chief, his workload has doubled.

The chief justice’s secrecy and control bother the rest of the court, too. He authorized releasing the Traffic Court report—the one that now has McCaffery in trouble—to the Inquirer without first giving the other justices a heads-up. Last January, Castille was stripped by his fellow justices of his position as liaison to Philadelphia’s courts. McCaffery didn’t get the position, though; the other justices made their colleague Mike Eakin, from Cumberland County, liaison instead.

In one way, however, the two Philadelphia justices partnered, at least for public consumption. When the Inquirer exposed the woeful performance of the city’s courts in 2009, Castille was initially skeptical. But he brought in Bill Chadwick, his former first assistant when he was D.A., to check it out and write a report, and Chadwick confirmed the Inky’s findings: If you committed a violent crime in Philadelphia, the chances you’d be convicted of it were small.

McCaffery had been pushing for change in the court system for years. When the Inquirer series came out, he bought copies at his Wawa and mailed them to his fellow justices. Here was his chance; he wanted the entire court behind him. Chadwick and McCaffery and his wife Lise Rapaport worked together and came up with a broad report, which would lead to myriad changes. One reorganized how prosecutors are assigned throughout the city. Another involved dealing with lesser crimes faster, which has decreased the backlog of cases—long a huge problem.

We should all stand and applaud: Many longtime Philly lawyers and judges are stunned at the effectiveness of the ov­erhaul—at how quickly and efficiently the big ocean liner of a system was turned and sent in a new direction. “They did some remarkable things,” says Ben Lerner, a Common Pleas judge. “I wish they could work together more often. It was good for everybody.”

But that initiative is the last and only time Ron Castille and Seamus McCaffery worked well together. Now, as the overhaul continues, with organizational changes coming in the city’s courts, McCaffery isn’t part of it.

Because the die was cast early on: McCaffery wasn’t going to get what he really wanted, the link to his natural Philadelphia power base, that liaison position. Castille would make sure of that. So McCaffery was stuck, a subordinate who needs to run his own show, and he got highly frustrated. But he would see his opening when a scandal hit Castille.

A few years ago, Castille partnered with a lawyer named Jeff Rotwitt to develop a new Family Court building in Philadelphia, which was desperately needed. But in 2010, the Inquirer exposed something ugly: Rotwitt was double-dipping—getting paid $55,000 a month by the Philly courts at the same time he collected some $825,000 as a consultant to the developer of the site.

Castille claims he didn’t know anything about that. Regardless, the outcry got vicious. There were calls for Castille’s resignation; Inky cartoonist Tony Auth drew him as if captured in a full-body scan, harboring sacks of cash.

But within that crisis was an opportunity—for Seamus McCaffery.

He had been complaining for some time about his boss, and not quietly. Some of it got back to Castille: how McCaffery said that he was arrogant, that he shut the other justices out of projects, that he didn’t respect McCaffery, and, most important, that he continued to block McCaffery from becoming liaison for the Philadelphia courts. McCaffery will never be chief justice, because getting there is based on seniority, and four other justices have more. Yet Castille still kept McCaffery from his rightful place.

But maybe, if Castille was in enough trouble over the Family Court project …

As one Castille insider puts it, Seamus McCaffery was “dancing on Ron’s head” when it looked, for a time, as though the chief justice was facing career disaster.

To say that the Family Court dustup was painful for Castille, that it harked back to Rizzo publicly trying to destroy him, misses how deeply hurt he was this time. Rizzo, in Castille’s current estimation, was “a jerk.” But that was merely politics, Bambino hardball. This was the city’s paper of record hammering away that the chief justice of the state Supreme Court was a crook.

His close friends watched as a certain humility hit Castille, given that his reputation was suddenly shattered. He called his ex-wife, Judy. “All I wanted to do was build a new building,” he told her quietly. “All I was trying to do was something good.”

Now, with McCaffery so palpably hopeful that the Family Court mess would be his avenue to the post of liaison to Philadelphia, he became even tougher for Castille to stomach: the bluster, the Harley, the shaved head, the tough-guy ex-Marine who never dodged a bullet in combat. The very essence of McCaffery clearly rubs the chief justice raw. And that this guy would be reveling during Castille’s deep trouble—well, it made McCaffery’s ambition downright impossible to take.

The Family Court crisis passed. But the antipathy between the justices was deepening.

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  • Michael Ochoa

    #UPMCrecycles