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.

They have more in common than you might think.

Ron Castille was a balls-to-the-wall prosecutor, back in the day. He says now that it was his favorite job, and no wonder. He argued many felony cases before Common Pleas judge James McDermott, who would later serve on the state Supreme Court and whose seat there Castille would fill in 1994. But back in the ’70s, it was a different game—a game of putting bad guys away. Castille had a habit of taking off his prosthetic leg during one particular defense attorney’s closing arguments and slapping that leg, none too lightly, on the table before him. What that would do, of course, was rivet the jury on Castille instead of on the defense lawyer, who would demand a sidebar discussion with Judge McDermott:

“Your Honor, would you please ask the prosecutor to put his leg back on?”

“Are you aware that the prosecutor is a war hero, Counselor?”

“I am.”

“That he gave his leg for the country?”

Suffice it to say, there would be no admonishment from Judge McDermott to prosecutor Castille.

His injury was useful to him. So was his s­wagger—the war hero who’d lost a leg and went around on crutches wearing a suede cowboy hat. There was a bit of Seamus in Ron, at least in the early days.

Tough-guy derring-do—it’s an image that Seamus McCaffery, six years younger than Castille, laps up. He loves to tell stories, and beams before any audience, his large shaved head fairly glowing. He has many stories. The stories all have a central character—Seamus McCaffery himself.

There’s the story, for example, of the time when he was a Municipal Court judge in Philly and saw a man named Gregory Weedman bolt—un-handcuffed!—from a police van at Front Street. The judge chased him in his car, then suddenly swung his vehicle around, à la Steve McQueen, to block Weedman; a cop on foot nabbed him.

Or the story of how McCaffery leaped down off the bench in Municipal Court to knock out a punk defendant who got out of control. Or the time he jumped off his Harley and drew his revolver to scare off a bunch of truck-jackers, who fled like cockroaches.

These stories about McCaffery drive Castille nuts. In his cluttered office at 19th and Market, he isn’t going to give too much away, or certainly not more than he wants to; even his longtime friends say much about Castille remains a mystery. Because of that inwardness, when he does let you in, with a small cat-ate-the canary smile, it is powerful.

“Seamus is not a person shy about pushing his own reputation,” he says. And then, a few minutes later: “Seamus holds himself as a Marine, but he’s never been in combat, unless you want to say driving around the streets of Philadelphia”—for a time, when he was a cop, McCaffery was a captain’s driver—“is the real McCoy. I had been in combat.”

On his 23rd birthday, in a rice paddy in South Vietnam, while trying to evacuate Marines under fire, Lieutenant Castille was shot in the right leg. A soldier in his command, Angel Mendez, dragged him to safety but was killed. The helicopter evacuating Castille got hit, and shrapnel tore the leg open further. Castille wouldn’t sign a paper authorizing amputation, but his leg was removed anyway.

Back home, morbidly depressed, he recovered for months in Philadelphia’s Naval Hospital, then refused to leave when he was finally discharged. What saved him this time—psychically—was skiing; he and other amputees were taught to ski on one leg at Pine Hill in New York. “It gave me the feeling that life was not over,” Castille says.

He still suffers from phantom pain, a stabbing sensation in the ankle that he lost. Years ago, Castille learned to hypnotize himself by placing a dime in the palm of his hand and zeroing in on it. But it no longer works, because, he says, “I can’t stop thinking about all the stuff I have to do.” His office overflows with piles of paper, and he takes a mountain of it down to his boat, the Sea Questered, docked in Somers Point, on weekends.

The rumor mill is full of stories of Castille’s drinking, to dull his pain or perhaps because he likes to drink, and he can often be found bellied up to the bar during happy hour at Smith & Wollensky. But a friend who knows him well insists the drinking isn’t problematic. And he never, this friend and others say, complains about his war injury.

In 1991, Castille, then D.A., would run for mayor in the Republican primary against Frank Rizzo, who was attempting a comeback. Castille was warned by insiders that Rizzo would play dirty, but the D.A. was the rare Republican who’d been voted into a high-level job in a major American city, and he had a 24-point lead in the polls. Castille was something of a golden boy.

Then Rizzo got busy. He accused Castille of being a gun-wielding crazy, based on a cop getting called to Castille’s home in East Falls late one night to find an allegedly drunk D.A. waving his .45-caliber pistol, and Castille’s offer at a birthday party to shoot out the candles with his gun. The veracity of those accusations was shaky, but not the effect: Rizzo wiped him out in the primary before dropping dead of a heart attack two months later.

Castille now pooh-poohs the impact of Rizzo-style politics, but the pain still comes through. “I used to carry a Daily News article with the headline RIZZO LIED,” he says. (Rizzo had been challenged by a reporter about an accusation of bribery, offered to take a lie detector test, and flunked it.) “And there was a quote about me from Rizzo: ‘the best D.A. the city ever had,’ from a radio show. I had a tape.” What made Rizzo change his tune about Castille? Politics, of course.

Castille would rebound when he ran for state Supreme Court. Bored in private practice, he got a call one day in the early ’90s from Anne Anstine, of the city GOP.

“Ron,” she said, “we’re looking for a candidate to run for the Supreme Court.”

“I’d be happy to help you out,” he said.

“You don’t understand,” Anstine said. “The candidate we want is you.”