‘Gratifying’ to get the call, Judge Kistler says

Centre County Court of Common Pleas Judge Thomas King Kistler got a call from Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday, nominating him to a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Centre County Court of Common Pleas Judge Thomas King Kistler got a call from Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday, nominating him to a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. CDT file photo

Centre County President Judge Thomas King Kistler got a phone call Wednesday afternoon and was surprised at who was on the other end.

It was Gov. Tom Wolf, personally telling Kistler that he was being nominated to fill one of two vacant seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He was aware that he was being considered for the post but expected to hear from a secretary or someone else, Kistler said.

“It was a very gratifying experience to have the governor personally call me. He was friendly and direct,” Kistler said. “It was an honor to be considered as a candidate and, when the governor calls you up and tells you its going to happen, it’s a very rewarding part of my career.”

Now that he officially has been nominated, Kistler must be confirmed by the state Senate before taking the bench in Harrisburg.

Kistler said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, approached him about two months ago about the job. Kistler said he was interested but made it clear he would not seek election to a 10-year term as a justice on the state’s highest court. The election for the two seats is this November.

Corman cited Kistler’s performance as a Common Pleas judge in recommending him for the high court.

“Since 1998, Tom Kistler has served Centre County well as a judge,” Corman said. “His dedication to public service now leads him to follow in the footsteps of Centre County’s only other Supreme Court justice, Judge Roy Wilkinson.”

Duquesne University Law School Dean Ken Gormley also was nominated by Wolf on Wednesday. They will finish the terms of Chief Justice Ron Castille, who stepped down after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, and Justice Seamus McCaffrey, who resigned last year in the wake of a pornographic email scandal. Gormley also will not seek a longer term on the court this fall.

Corman said the plan is to have both judges confirmed and seated by the second week of March, the next time the court is scheduled to hear cases.

Kistler will have to resign as a Common Pleas judge in Centre County if confirmed. President judges in Centre County are determined by seniority. The next in line is Judge Bradley P. Lunsford, Kistler said.

Kistler’s departure would leave Centre County with only three judges. The governor can appoint a replacement until the next municipal election in 2017, when the seat will be up for election, Centre County Director of Elections Joyce McKinley said.

Kistler said senior judges, like Charles C. Brown Jr. and David E. Grine from Centre County and J. Michael Williamson from Clinton County, can help out until a replacement is named. Grine and Williamson have already heard proceedings in Bellefonte this year.

If confirmed, Kistler’s last day in office as a Supreme Court justice would be Dec. 31. The resignation in Centre County and decision not to seek election as Supreme Court justice in November will leave Kistler out of a job Jan. 1, when the justices elected in November take over. Kistler said he has no plans for next year but hopes to continue serving as a judge in some capacity.

“It’s a leap of faith and a great honor,” Kistler said. “I’m certain that an opportunity will come up.”