Kistler withdraws name for consideration for state Supreme Court vacancy

Judge Thomas K. Kistler has withdrawn his name for consideration to fill a vacancy on the state supreme court.
Judge Thomas K. Kistler has withdrawn his name for consideration to fill a vacancy on the state supreme court. CDT file photo

Earlier this month, it looked as though Centre County President Judge Thomas King Kistler would be headed to Harrisburg to serve as a state Supreme Court justice after Gov. Tom Wolf personally called to offer Kistler a spot on the state’s highest court.

Now, it’s certain that Kistler will remain in Centre County. The judge issued a statement Monday morning announcing his withdrawal from consideration.

“Since November, when I first offered to serve the (c)ommonwealth on the highest court in Pennsylvania, several circumstances have developed here, at home, in Centre County, which have dramatically altered the legal system, and require my full attention. I cannot with a clear conscience abandon my responsibilities to Centre County in this time of uncertainty,” Kistler wrote in the statement.

Had the “current circumstances” been known in November, when Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, approached him about being nominated, he never would have agreed, Kistler wrote.

“Since I put my name out there for nomination, things have changed, and the more things changed, the less comfortable I was leaving,” Kistler said in an interview Monday.

Corman said the judge expressed in November concerns about leaving, but Kistler thought it would be OK to take the higher post. Although disappointed, Corman said he understands the choice.

“I understand and accept that decision, and as a resident of Centre County, I’m supportive of his decision to withdraw to focus on Centre County,” Corman said.

Another issue was the reaction of people in the courthouse after the nomination was made official, Kistler said. He was approached with congratulations, Kistler said, but also concerns. Some said they wished he wouldn’t go, and that’s “not an easy thing to ignore,” Kistler said in an interview Monday.

Kistler said he felt an obligation to the people of Centre County to stick around until the matters are resolved. One such change was the retirement of longtime Court Administrator Maxine Ishler, Kistler said, and he said he felt he should be active in the process of naming a successor and seeing the vacancy filled. It is up to the president judge to make the selection.

He declined to elaborate further on the other “circumstances” that are of concern.

The withdrawal is another of a series of developments surrounding Centre County court figures in recent months. Kistler reassigned Judge Bradley P. Lunsford, who was in line to be president judge had Kistler been confirmed for the Supreme Court vacancy, from hearing criminal cases with the exception of DUIs in December.

In January, forgery allegations against District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller were made public at a county commissioners meeting. The matter is being investigated by the state’s Office of Attorney General.

Last week, a questionable email received and forwarded by Kistler to courthouse employees, including Parks Miller, surfaced. The December 2013 email depicts a holiday greeting card, framed with Santa and a reindeer, and 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 prison phones to talk, with the caption “Merry Christmas from the Johnsons.”

That was not a factor in his decision Monday, Kistler said.

“It really had nothing to do with the email, but how I could best serve and I know I can best serve in Centre County,” he said.

The governor accepted the withdrawal Monday.

“I will make no further nominations, and Senate leadership has said they will not hold hearings for either of the existing vacancies on the Supreme Court,” Wolf said in a statement.

Wolf’s other nominee, Duquesne School of Law Dean Ken Gormley, is a Democrat. If he would be confirmed, that would tilt the power on the Supreme Court.