Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Two County Judges Announce Retention Bids

While this doesn't really have anything to do with the upcoming trial itself (other than a brief mention of Harlow and Joe), I thought it was an interesting article from today's Citizens' Voice, as it gives a little background information on Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr.:

Luzerne County judges Thomas F. Burke Jr. and Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. have filed declarations to be retention candidates on the November election ballot, Pennsylvania Department of State spokeswoman Leslie Amoros confirmed Monday.

Monday was the deadline for judges to file declarations that allow voters to decide whether to approve or deny another 10-year term on the bench.

County Commissioner Stephen A. Urban on Monday repeated his stance that voters should reject every county judge currently on the bench when up for retention.

Urban is the only Republican serving as a county commissioner or as a county row officer. Burke is the only Republican among the nine current judges on the county bench.

“Vote them all out,” Urban said. “They’re all part of the system.”

President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and the county judges have initiated litigation over court funding because county commissioners want to reduce judicial branch salaries by $1.9 million. Attorneys agreed to a temporary truce that the 2009 budget will be in effect starting Jan. 1 for non-court departments, while the judiciary would be funded at 2008 amounts until the litigation is resolved.

Olszewski and Burke declined to respond directly to the litigation or Urban’s comments on voting against incumbent judges.

“Obviously, I play no role in the budget process,” Olszewski said. “I’m sure when November comes, the voters of this county will review my record and review everything I’ve done on the bench over the last 10 years, and they will vote to retain me by a large margin … I’m confident that I’ll do well.”

Burke, 62, was appointed by former Gov. Tom Ridge in May 1998 to fill the Court of Common Pleas seat vacated by Judge Correale Stevens’ election to the state Superior Court.

Burke and Olszewski won election to their current 10-year terms in November 1999, running virtually unopposed after defeating attorney Virginia Murtha Cowley and Magisterial District Judge Fred Pierantoni for the Republican and Democratic party nominations in the May primary.

Olszewski, 49, served as Luzerne County district attorney for eight years prior to his election to the Court of Common Pleas. He graduated from Penn State and earned his law degree from the Dickinson School of Law.

His father, Peter Paul Olszewski Sr., served on the state Superior Court from 1983 to 2005 and on the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas from 1967 to 1983.

As a judge, Olszewski Jr. has presided over several prominent cases, including the first capital murder trial of Hugo Selenski and the capital murder case against Joseph Kerekes and Harlow Cuadra.

Selenski was acquitted in March 2006 on two murder charges, but convicted on two counts of abusing a corpse. Olszewski recused himself in August 2006 from hearing Selenski’s pending trial on two other killings.

Kerekes pleaded guilty last month to second-degree murder and other charges in the death of Bryan Kocis in Dallas Township in January 2007. Cuadra is scheduled to stand trial for the same killing Feb. 17.

Last March, Olszewski gained national notoriety when he ordered three immigrants from the Dominican Republic to learn English or face a prison sentence. The men were charged with armed assault and robbery after being accused of jumping two men, pulling a gun on them, and hitting one of them with a dog bone in Hazleton.

If the men learned English and passed a test a year later, they would be allowed to remain free, but if they failed, they would have to go back to jail to serve the rest of the sentence, Olszewski said.

“As a general proposition, I believe experience is a very great advantage for a jurist,” Burke said. “I do, in fact, believe in the retention system.”

Burke graduated with honors from Lehigh University, received his law degree from Villanova University and practiced as an attorney for 25 years before ascending to the bench. He served in the U.S. Army and fought in the Vietnam War, and was awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious service.

As a judge, Burke has handled thousands of civil and criminal matters and is expected to preside over the planned retrial of James Lincoln Strong, the Georgia man accused of killing a man off Interstate 81 in Dorrance Township in 1983.

The court-county litigation is currently in a discovery phase, in which depositions will take place, county solicitor Vito DeLuca said. A hearing on the budget dispute will take place after discovery, which will last at least 30 days, DeLuca said.