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Questionable email causes stir for Centre County Judge Thomas King Kistler

Centre County Judge Thomas King Kistler speaks at the courthouse in 2014. A questionable email sent from Kistler to members of the criminal justice system is raising eyebrows.
Centre County Judge Thomas King Kistler speaks at the courthouse in 2014. A questionable email sent from Kistler to members of the criminal justice system is raising eyebrows. CDT file photo

A questionable email from a Centre County judge is raising eyebrows.

In an email obtained by the Centre Daily Times, a holiday greeting card, framed with Santa and a reindeer, shows a jail visit, with a black couple smiling for the camera, the orange-jumpsuited man separated from the woman by a pane of glass as they hold the prison phones to talk, with the caption “Merry Christmas from the Johnsons.”

The image is easily searchable online. Snopes.com says it first appeared online in 2011.

The email was sent Dec. 16, 2013, at 9:55 a.m. It purports to be from the account of Centre County President Judge Thomas King Kistler, with the message “Touching and heart-warming. Merry Christmas to ALL!” and is signed “JK.”

The email went out to a list of 22 people, including Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller and four of her staff members and numerous members of the probation department.

Kistler confirmed Friday that he had received and then forwarded the email but says his meaning was misconstrued.

“There was absolutely no ill intent,” he said. “It was a comment about how lightly people take being incarcerated.”

He was adamant that there was no racism involved.

“I am proud of the reputation that this whole court has for complete fairness to everyone who comes to this building,” he said, “There is not one person in this building who has a racial tone to them. The last thing I would do would be to express some racial bias and send it to 20 friends.”

The story is gaining traction beyond Centre County as Kistler was nominated by Gov. Tom Wolf this month to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Ironically, one of the two vacant slots on the court was created when Justice Seamus McCaffery quit amid another email scandal, that one involving pornography.

Kistler said that he does not believe the response to the old email will have an impact on confirmation of his nomination.

Kistler’s name was put forward for the seat by state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman. Corman’s office declined comment on the email issue Friday.

It is the latest in a list of interesting courthouse developments in Centre County.

In December, Judge Bradley P. Lunsford, who is in line to become president judge if Kistler is confirmed for the higher court, was removed by Kistler from hearing criminal cases other than DUIs. Lunsford, who has heard a number of high-profile cases in recent years, has faced criticism from some defense attorneys for having too close a relationship with the District Attorney’s Office, with requested county records showing a flurry of text messages between the judge and prosecutors.

Parks Miller has also been the center of controversy. She is accused of forging Judge Pamela A. Ruest’s signature on an order in a case that is being investigated by the state Attorney General’s Office. Even the attorney general, Kathleen Kane, has her own issues. She is under investigation for allegedly leaking secret grand jury information.

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