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.

“I have always said,” Ron Castille tells me in his office, “that Seamus McCaffery has too many friends in the First Judicial District and too many enemies in the First Judicial District. It’s a problem to have someone that close to the system in charge of it.”

The chief justice is talking about the risk of McCaffery becoming liaison to the Philadelphia courts. He’s not alone in his concern.

One Philadelphia judge says that after he gave a verdict in a particular case not long ago, Supreme Court Justice McCaffery called him to chew him out for the decision he rendered. The judge says a call like that is dead wrong, an obvious attempt at intimidation. (Through his lawyer, McCaffery denies ever speaking to other judges about their cases.)

Another judge in Philadelphia says that employees of the courts are afraid of McCaffery; others in the system say the same thing. The judge laughs darkly over how far the demand of allegiance to McCaffery stretches: “I think that people think that not only does he give rewards and punishment, but if you’re on the wrong side, that friends of his enemies automatically become his enemies.”

Further, one of Ron Castille’s prime fears—that Seamus McCaffery is trying to build a political power base through the city’s courts—is an accepted notion in local Democratic politics; the real question is whether McCaffery is involved in politics now, as a sitting judge, which would be in direct violation of the state ethics act.

Bernice Hill is a Democratic ward leader in the Northeast, where Seamus McCaffery lives. I ask her if McCaffery is, in fact, involved in ward politics. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to give that out for a Supreme Court justice,” she says. “I don’t want to answer any questions like that. I didn’t say he isn’t, I didn’t say he is.”

That’s not exactly a shining confirmation of the justice’s distance from politics, though it proves nothing. Yet two visits that Ron Castille has been paid in his office, by two important players in the city’s political culture, cast a much sharper light on whether Seamus McCaffery is politicking.

Castille himself says that District Attorney Seth Williams came to him during the 2009 D.A.’s race—in which Williams and Seamus’s brother Dan were both candidates—with a complaint: Seamus McCaffery was holding ward meetings at his house in Northeast Philadelphia. Castille told Williams that he could take his complaint to the judicial conduct board, and that perhaps he had an obligation to do just that.

Did Williams’s complaint seem like a big deal to him?

Castille shrugs. “I have confidence [in a fellow justice] until there’s a charge,” he says. This is cat-ate-the-canary Ron: He wants it known that Williams came to him and why, and that’s all he’ll say about that. “I didn’t have personal knowledge,” the chief justice says. “It was hearsay.” (Williams didn’t respond to requests for comment, and through his lawyer, McCaffery denies holding ward meetings at his house during his brother’s run for D.A., or, for that matter, any involvement in ward politics while he’s been a Supreme Court justice.)

And then there is Bob Brady’s letter.

In late 2009—just after the November election in which Dan McCaffery lost his bid to become D.A.—Seamus and Congressman Bob Brady, the city’s Democratic Party honcho, got into a shouting match at a party event. “The party didn’t do the right thing!” Seamus McCaffery yelled at him, according to Brady. “He was disturbed that his brother lost,” Brady says. “We talked about jobs”—getting people jobs within the court system in the city. “I wanted [Seamus] to be helpful, to help me get job postings. He said, ‘What happened with my brother?’ I thought I was going to be punished for not helping certain people. I walked out.”

And then Brady—angry himself—penned a letter that he brought to Ron Castille. Dated December 1, 2009, it was written on the letterhead of the Democratic County Executive Committee of Philadelphia, for the city’s Democratic ward leaders. It reads:

I am writing to inform you that from this date forward any employment request you have concerning the Philadelphia court system (Common Pleas, Municipal, or Traffic Court) you contact Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery.

Information that you should be aware of … After meeting with him I was told by the Justice that if you or your ward did NOT support his brother Daniel for election for District Attorney that he would NOT entertain any employment request that you may have. Also, any elected officials that did NOT raise money for the election of Jack Panella to the Supreme Court, their requests for employment would also NOT be granted.

Yours Truly,

Chairman Robert A. Brady

The letter doesn’t mean what it says, of course; Brady didn’t want ward leaders going to Seamus McCaffery for jobs. Instead, it was a pointed threat: If Brady did send the letter to the city’s Democratic ward leaders, and the letter then became public knowledge, that would be highly embarrassing to the court.

In other words, Bob Brady brought it to Ron Castille so that Castille would stop McCaffery from taking away Brady’s influence in procuring jobs in the courts.

Castille asked Brady not to send the letter. Brady says now that he went to McCaffery a few days after seeing Castille and showed him the letter; he claims they cleared up what was “a misunderstanding.” (Through his lawyer, McCaffery also claims the letter “was drafted in error based on a miscommunication.”)

Brady concedes that he wrote the letter because he thought there would “not be jobs for certain people” after his argument with McCaffery. “But I made a mistake,” Brady says. “I read him wrong. He wasn’t saying he wasn’t giving jobs to people who didn’t support his brother”—though in fact Brady’s letter is quite specific about exactly that—“and he reminded me that he’s not the liaison, that he’s out of politics. We squared that up. I’m glad we cleared that up. He’s my friend.”

Then Brady wonders what is going on, with a four-year-old letter, never sent, surfacing now: “Is Castille trying to destroy Seamus?”