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Questionable Email From Centre County Judge Under Scrutiny

by on February 24, 2015 6:00 AM

Only days before withdrawing his nomination to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Centre County President Judge Thomas Kistler came under fire from numerous politicians for a potentially offensive email sent in 2013.

“Judges, for better or worse, live in glass houses and have to be very careful about their conduct, which is often scrutinized very carefully,” says Philadelphia-based attorney and legal ethics expert Abraham C. Reich.

The email in question contained a fake Christmas card that depicted an African-American couple during what appears to be a prison visit, with the caption “Merry Christmas from the Johnsons.” Kistler forwarded the email to more than 20 prosecutors and courthouse employees on Dec. 16, 2013.

According to reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Governor Tom Wolf planned to investigate what some consider a racially insensitive email, while some state legislators called the email “unfortunate” and said it “shows a person who is out of touch.”

Kistler says the email was not intended be offensive. He also says his decision to withdraw his supreme court nomination was motivated by “a great deal of unrest” in the county court system, and not by backlash to the email. Kistler will remain the president judge of Centre County.

Reich says he is not familiar with the December 2013 email itself, and stresses he is not in a position to decide whether Kistler acted inappropriately. However, he explains that judges must always seek to avoid giving the appearance of bias or prejudice.

“Clearly, conduct that evidences a racial bias would be inconsistent with the role of a judge,” Reich says. “… I know Judge Kistler, not very well, but I’ve know him for a number of years, and [allegations of racial bias] would appear to be inconsistent with his reputation.”

Centre County Solicitor Louis Glantz says he is also not familiar with the December 2013 email, but adds that he has never had reason to believe that Kistler harbors any kind of prejudice or racial bias.

Glantz says the county government will not take any action against Kistler. He explains that the county judicial system is separate from the county administration, so the county government couldn’t censure Kistler even if it wanted to.

However, Glantz says the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania could decide to undertake an investigation if it receives reports or complaints about Kistler.

Representatives from the judicial conduct board have previously told that complaints and investigations are kept confidential, that only a fraction of complaints lead to investigations, and that only a fraction of investigations lead to any formal charges of wrongdoing.

Reich says the judicial conduct board would also consider allegations of bias in the larger context of Kistler’s career. If Kistler has done nothing else to suggest a racial bias, then Reich doubts an investigation would lead to any charges of misconduct. 

State College criminal defense attorney Matt McClenahan says anyone who would accuse Kistler of racism “simply doesn’t know him well enough.”

“I’ve had many minority clients that have gone in front of Judge Kistler and walked away with more lenient sentences than what the commonwealth was asking for,” McClenahan says.

McClenahan says he does not expect the 2013 email to cause any problems for Kistler’s continued work as a judge in the county.

He also says that Kistler’s leadership will be important during a tumultuous time for the Centre County court system. Judge Bradley Lunsford has been accused of removing documents from public files, while Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller has been accused of forging a judge’s signature. Both Lunsford and Parks Miller deny any wrongdoing.

Reich also points out that Kistler's record as a judge was already examined very closely.

“When [Kistler] went through the nomination process for the supreme court, he had his life dissected in many different ways. People scrutinize private conduct to tell whether a judge has any kind of bias,” Reich says. “I’ve seen no evidence that came out of that process that demonstrated that he has a prejudice towards any group or class, which is something to think about.”


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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for 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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