Less than three months after launching his campaign for another 10-year term on the bench, Centre County Court of Common Pleas Judge Bradley Lunsford has announced his intention to retire at the end of his current term.
“It has been a true honor and privilege to serve as a judge of the Centre County Court of Common Pleas,” Lunsford said in a prepared statement. “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, who has worked as a county judge for more than a decade, will step down from his position with the court at the end of this year, and will be replaced in January by a new judge chosen by the voters during the November election.
Lunsford’s legacy as a judge includes spearheading the creation of the Children’s Advocacy Center, which brings law enforcement and social workers together to avoid forcing abused children to go through multiple interviews. He also helped create the Centre County DUI Court as well as the Courthouse K-9 program, which helps children navigate the criminal justice system with the support of a service dog.
“Judge Lunsford seemed to really understand mental illness and to really understand addiction, whereas some judges or prosecutors may not understand those concepts as well,” State College defense attorney Matt McClenahen says. “He would always take those things into account and really tried to help people who ended up in the criminal justice system because of mental illness or addiction.”
Caught in the Crossfire
Lunsford has also been subject to intense public scrutiny and criticism over the past nine months, during which time he has found himself caught in the crossfire of the ongoing Right to Know controversy between the district attorney and county government.
A handful of defense attorneys have sought or obtained phone records detailing contact between Lunsford and District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, which the attorneys have used to allege the appearance of impropriety within the courtroom.
Back in December, Centre County President Judge Tom Kistler signed an order preventing Lunsford from hearing criminal cases. The reasoning behind that order was never made public.
The Centre County Prothonotary and Solicitor have also both raised concerns that Lunsford removed documents from the public files of cases he presided over. Each case he allegedly removed documents from included an attempt to remove him as the presiding judge, although Lunsford says the dispute was a misunderstanding and he later returned the documents.
Multiple sources, including county solicitor Louis Glantz, have told StateCollege.com that Lunsford was under review by the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania, but could not offer specifics of the alleged investigation. Conduct board officials say they can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any past or present investigation.
“Anytime you’re in a publicly elected office, you open yourself up to criticisms and questions, and that’s just the way it is. This isn’t a popularity contest,” says fellow Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Grine. “I work on facts and concrete information, and rumors and allegations are not facts.”
Looking to the Future
Grine calls Lunsford “a great colleague and a great loss to Centre County" who showed dedication to civil service both in and out of the courtroom. Although he will miss working alongside the judge, Grine says he appreciates Lunsford announcing his intention to retire with enough time for another judge to be elected in November.
President Judge Kistler explains that the timing of Lunsford’s retirement announcement will create an “abbreviated election cycle” in November.
Both the Centre County Republican and Democratic Committees will appoint a candidate by September 14, who will appear on the November 3 ballot. The only eligibility requirements for nomination are that potential candidates be certified attorneys in good professional standing who are also Centre County residents, Kistler says.
If Lunsford had announced his intention to retire any later, Kistler says it would have created a two-year vacancy because judges can only be elected in odd-numbered years, which would have been “a big problem” for the court system.
“We’re grateful, not necessarily for the circumstance, but we’re grateful that the voters will have a voice in picking our next judge,” Kistler said at a courthouse staff meeting on Friday morning.
In his statement, Lunsford does not specify his exact plans after retirement, but pledges to continue to work to benefit the people of Centre County.
“I have a deep passion for serving this community as well as serving the people who make it ‘Happy Valley,’” the statement reads. “I can guarantee that my service to the community will not end with my retirement.”
Attempts to contact Lunsford for further comment were unsuccessful.