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Somerset County native Saylor to take over as Pa.’s new chief justice

Paul Peirce
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In this Jan. 4, 2011 file photo, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor, left, swears in Samuel Smith, R- Indiana, as Speaker of the House in the Pennsylvania General Assembly hall in Harrisburg.

As Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court chief justice prepares to take office next week, he has but one wish — for calm and normalcy to replace the turmoil and scandal that have plagued the high court in recent years.

“It has certainly been a rough 2 12 to 3 years. Those episodes centered only on the actions of a few justices, but it certainly impacted the public perception of the court,” said Somerset County native Thomas G. Saylor, who will be sworn in Tuesday.

Saylor, 68, of Camp Hill, a Republican born in Meyersdale, said he wants the court’s collective decisions to be front and center, not the behavior of individual justices.

“We want to stay out of the newspapers … you guys will still have three (Supreme Court justice) races to watch next year,” he said Tuesday in a phone interview.

In addition to Chief Justice Ronald Castille’s mandatory retirement at 70, Seamus McCaffery resigned in late October because he was implicated in a pornographic email scandal that involved employees of the state Attorney General’s Office.

Justice Joan Orie Melvin resigned this year when she was convicted in a public corruption case. Her seat is held by Corry Stevens, appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett until the three open seats on the seven-member panel go before voters in 2015.

Calm demeanor

Those who have worked with Saylor say his trademark calm demeanor has been a constant through his 16 years on the high court and his earlier career practicing law in Somerset County and Harrisburg.

“I can tell you the commonwealth is getting a great chief justice. I can also tell you that I expect Tom will run a tight ship,” said James B. Yelovich, who has practiced law in Somerset for 50 years and served as district attorney in the 1980s.

“You won’t see any type of alienation as you recently saw between (outgoing Chief Justice Ronald) Castille and former Justice (Seamus) McCaffery. It’s been my experience Tom makes a point to get along, but at the same time, he gets the job done,” Yelovich said.

Meyersdale District Judge Douglas McCall Bell worked in the same law practice as Saylor in the 1980s and said he’s “known him since I was 18 or 19 years old.”

Bell said his well-rounded background in state government, criminal law, civil litigation and business law has served him well on the bench.

“He’s always been a scholar at heart … and he may miss some of that becoming chief administrator,” he said.

The chief justice collects a few thousand dollars more in salary, plays the lead role in assigning opinions, handles an array of administrative duties and serves as the public face of the state court system.

Saylor’s former law clerk between 2009 and 2011, Casey A. Coyle, now an attorney with Eckert Seamans in Philadelphia, said it was no fluke that Castille often gave Saylor some of the court’s most difficult opinions to write.

“Justice Saylor is a man of few words as everyone who has argued before him will tell you, but he has a knack for asking the question that is on everyone’s mind, and it gets right to the heart of the matter before him. I describe him as transparent, fair and principled … the public persona matches the private persona,” Coyle said.

Castille spoke of his respect for Saylor in an interview with the Associated Press.

“I take his concurrences and even his positions in dissent very seriously, because they always make a good point, either technically or legally,” Castille said.

“It may not be a point I agree with, but that’s the way it is with seven justices.”

Castille, a Republican, described Saylor as a political moderate.

Close to his roots

Saylor, who has remained connected to his Somerset County roots and regularly vacations there with his family, said Pennsylvanians can expect him to run the Supreme Court in “a business-like fashion” and to be “as prompt as we can be in making decisions.”

Though he admits to managing in a “collegial fashion,” he said he expects to resolve difficult issues in a “firm and expeditious manner.”

And his Western Pennsylvania upbringing in mostly rural Somerset County, where the population hovers around 76,500, will never be far from his mind.

“Those small-town roots, and bringing that experience practicing in a smaller bar association with friends in Somerset, Cambria and Westmoreland counties, are part of who I am today. I think the courts function better with that geographical experience and insight,” Saylor said.

Saylor earned a law degree at Columbia University in 1972 after college at the University of Virginia.

He was a Somerset County prosecutor, headed the state Bureau of Consumer Protection in Harrisburg and was a deputy state attorney general in 1984.

He worked in a Harrisburg law office before winning election to state Superior Court in 1993.

Saylor beat Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Del Sole in the race for state Supreme Court in 1997, and voters retained him for another decade in 2007. He will become chief justice by virtue of having the most seniority on the court.

Saylor will be the second Somerset County native to be sworn in as chief justice in Pennsylvania.

In 1951, Somerset attorney Jeremiah Sullivan Black was elected to the state Supreme Court and served the first three years as chief justice.

Paul Peirce is a reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 724-850-2860.

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