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Judge Kistler Withdraws Nomination to Pa. Supreme Court

by on February 23, 2015 9:50 AM

Centre County President Judge Tom Kistler will not be heading to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In an official statement released Monday, Kistler says he is willingly withdrawing his nomination to the state's highest court.

"Since November, when I first offered to serve the Commonwealth 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," the statement reads. "I cannot with a clear conscience abandon my responsibilities to Centre County in this time of uncertainty."

His letter mentions the vacant court administrator position and "several other urgent matters in our court" as reasons for his decision. Kistler also tells StateCollege.com that the forgery allegations involving Centre County District Attorney and the Centre County Commissioners are part of his decision, saying that there is "a great deal of unrest" in the county court system.

Pennsylvania State Senator Jake Corman, who was involved in recommending Kistler to fill the vacant supreme court seat, says he respects Kistler's decision to stay in Centre County.

"Prior to his nomination, Judge Kistler and I discussed the ongoing issues in the Centre County judicial system and concerns for his leaving the local bench during this time," Corman says in a statement. "In the weeks since his nomination, it has become increasingly apparent that the priority for Judge Kistler was and needed to be our local community."

Kistler says his withdrawal has nothing to do with a potentially offensive email he sent in 2013 that has recently surfaced.

The email shows an African-American man in an orange jumpsuit, talking from behind a pane of glass to an African-American woman through a prison phone. The photo is captioned "Merry Christmas from the Johnsons." According to online rumor database Snopes.com, the photo has circulated on the internet in different forms since at least 2011.

The email was forwarded from Kistler to more than 20 prosecutors and other courthouse employees. "Touching and heart-warming. Merry Christmas to ALL! JK" the email reads.

"It was absolutely not intended to be racist in any way," Kistler says.

Kistler says the "touching and heart-warming" remark was intended as sarcasm. He says the email was intended to comment on how incarceration and the criminal justice system aren't always taken seriously, as evidenced by joke Christmas cards. He says he did not intend to offend or hurt anyone by forwarding the email.

"I can see why people who haven't had the opportunity to discuss this with me might find it to be offensive on its face," Kistler says.

Kistler was first nominated to the Pa. Supreme Court in November, after members of the state senate recommended him to Governor Tom Wolf. Representatives for Wolf and the Centre County Bar Association did not immediately return requests for comment.

This is the latest in a series of questionable events that have occurred in the Centre County court system recently.

A former paralegal has accused district attorney Stacy Parks Miller of forging a judge's signature, which she denies. Parks Miller and the county commissioners have been fighting over what agency has authority to investigate the allegations in the state supreme court since last month.

Judge Bradley Lunsford, who may have taken over the president judge position if Kistler hadn't withdrawn his nomination, has also come under fire. The Centre County Solicitor sent a letter to Lunsford in December 2014, raising concerns that Lunsford had removed documents from public files. Lunsford is also currently barred from hearing any criminal cases except DUIs.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include comment from Sen. Corman.

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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