Judge Bradley P. Lunsford, who officially announced a retention campaign earlier this year, has pulled out of the election this November and will retire from the bench when his term expires.
Centre County Court Administrator Kendra Miknis said President Judge Thomas King Kistler called a meeting of courthouse staff about noon Friday to inform them that the Pennsylvania Department of State told him that Lunsford had withdrawn from the election.
In a statement on Lunsford’s campaign website, the judge said he plans to retire when his term ends in January 2016. Lunsford, who had previously served as a magisterial district judge in the office currently held by District Judge Leslie Dutchcot, in the county public defender’s and district attorney’s office and practiced law privately, ran unopposed for the then newly created fourth common pleas judge position in 2005 and was elected to a 10-year term.
“I am thankful to this community for the amazing opportunity you have given me to serve as a jurist and my family and I will be forever grateful for the love and support we have received throughout my career,” Lunsford said in the statement. “With the full support of my family, I have decided to pursue other passions and opportunities.”
Lunsford said in the statement that he was honored to work with those in the criminal justice system during his time on the bench to start programs like the Centre County Courthouse K-9 Program, which provided a dog, Princess, to comfort and help child crime victims during trips to the courthouse, and also the Centre County Child Advocacy Center and DUI court.
Attorney Elizabeth Hunt, who practiced law in Lunsford’s court both as an assistant district attorney and as a defense attorney, said that Lunsford truly cared about people that appeared before him in court and pointed to programs like DUI court as a prime example.
“Judge Lunsford knew the story of each and every member of the program and felt their struggles with them,” Hunt said.
But Lunsford has also been scrutinized since late last year, starting when Kistler reassigned Lunsford from hearing criminal cases except DUI court in December, and has factored in the ongoing controversy and lawsuits regarding the state Right-to-Know Law.
Defense attorneys have used phone records received through Right-To-Know requests filed with county government that showed the presence — but not content — of contact between Lunsford and members of the Centre County District Attorney’s Office and used them in court filings to allege that the contacts presented the appearance of bias.
Other concerns were raised over missing documents from the prothonotary’s office, although Lunsford maintained that was a mistake and the documents were returned. An investigation by the state Judicial Conduct Board was also reportedly underway.
In the statement, Lunsford said he plans to continue serving the community after his retirement and will continue support for the advocacy center through an endowment.
Miknis said a special judicial election will replace retention at the ballot box on Nov. 3.
Centre County Director of Elections and Voter Registration Joyce McKinley said the state department handles nominations for judicial candidates, and both major political parties and independent candidates will work through them to get on the ballot. The department will notify her office of those that will appear on the ballot by Sept. 14, McKinley said.
The winner of that election will take Lunsford’s place and serve a 10-year term, starting on Jan. 1.