Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. in his chambers inside the Luzerne County Courthouse.PETE G. WILCOX/THE TIMES LEADER
Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. in his chambers inside the Luzerne County Courthouse.Pete G. Wilcox/The Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE – Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Jr. said a retention campaign typically deals with issues.
For Olszewski and Judge Thomas F. Burke, their retention campaigns have been anything but typical.
“In a way, the scandal has turned the retention issue on its head,” Olszewski, 49, said. “Nobody is asking me what I have done to distinguish myself, or what I have accomplished during my 10 years on the bench.”
Olszewski said he is constantly being hit with questions about the scandal. He said the scandal has added “a new wrinkle” to his campaign.
Olszewski said people have asked him why he didn’t know what was going on and why voters should believe he is not like (Conahan and Ciavarella).
“They’re fair questions,” Olszewski said. “I have answered them all, and I will continue to answer them whenever they are asked. I just wish I could talk more about how I’ve distinguished myself and why I deserve to be retained.”
Olszewski said he continues to attend public events and he looks forward to meeting people in all parts of Luzerne County. Dr. Peter Casterline, a retired surgeon, has joined his campaign and a Web site – yestoretainjudgepeterpaul.com – is available for people to find out more about the judge.
“Voter confidence in county government and the judiciary has been shaken, no question about it,” Olszewski said. “And they have expressed confidence in the things we have done as a court en banc since the end of January 6. I think we have helped to rekindle the confidence the public needs to have.”
Olszewski says a “healthy skepticism” is good, but people shouldn’t take that to mean there is any guilt by association.
“We have good judges,” he said. “I’m a good judge; Tom Burke is a good judge. I’m asking the public to have confidence in us.”
Former Luzerne County District Attorney Robert J. Gillespie Jr. said Olszewski has been a fine judge and should be retained.
“When you appear before Judge Olszewski, you better be prepared,” Gillespie said. “He demands the lawyers appearing before him are prepared to represent their clients. To lose him and Judge Burke because of crimes committed by others would be a tragedy.
Gillespie said former judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella “ran the court system as if they owned it.”
Another former Luzerne County District Attorney, Jerome Cohen, said he favors retention of both Olszewski and Burke.
“They are two hard working jurists who to my knowledge have been above any type of reproach in the administration of their offices and courtrooms,” Cohen said. “Should the facts indicate to the contrary in the administration of their judicial duties, then I would vote accordingly.”
Attorney Jonathon Comitz has appeared before both judges. He said they should be retained because their experience on the bench is invaluable
“I have won cases and lost cases before both judges,” Comitz said. “They are fair and reasonable and if the voters of this county fail to retain them, then we will get two more inexperienced candidates to run in their place.”
Comitz said at this critical time – meaning the ongoing corruption probe – Olszewski and Burke bring stability to the county judiciary.
“They each bring many years of experience,” he said. “They have solid track records. As a litigator I always want a fair and impartial trial; you always get that with these two judges.”
Olszewski said he has worked extremely hard over the last 10 years to try to make Luzerne County a better place. He said he has ruled that younger criminal defendants without education be required to complete their education. He said he has worked with school districts to place defendants back in school.
“Some have been successful and some have not,” he said. “I hear about the bad results, but I don’t often get to hear the success stories. It’s my belief that the better the education one has, the better job they can get.”
Olszewski said he has put defendants on probation and required them to get a full-time job within 30 days. He said if a person has a legitimate job with a decent pay check, they won’t have to turn to crime to pay their bills.
He has worked with defendants who are willing to break their dependencies on drugs and alcohol. At a recent ceremony, Olszewski said a woman came up to him and said she appeared before him in court.
“She said she didn’t like me then,” Olszewski said. “Then she said she entered rehab and has been clean for nearly three years. Those are the stories I like to hear.”
Olszewski said he has dealt with violent crime offenders who don’t display a desire to be helped.
“I’ve taken those people off the streets,” he said.
Olszewski said he is a better judge today than he was 10 years ago, five years ago and one year ago.
“And I plan to be a better judge a year from now,” he said. “You would think after 10 years on the bench that sentencing would become easier. Actually, it’s more difficult now.”
A former county district attorney, Olszewski said his father – former state Superior Court Judge Peter Paul Olszewski Sr. – has been the biggest inspiration in his life and career. When Olszewski talked about his father, he became emotional and took a moment to pause and collect himself.
“No doubt he has had the most influence on me and my career,” Olszewski said of his father. “When I was a student at Meyers High school, my dad was a sitting judge. When I went from Meyers to Penn State University, dad was a judge. He taught me that you had to be dedicated to the law. He taught me the importance of honesty, fairness and toughness. I’ve tried every day to live up to his standards.”
Olszewski said he learned many things from his father, but one lesson he employs nearly every day. When sentencing criminals, Olszewski, like his father, always asks the arresting officer one question: Did the defendant give you a hard time?
“I’m proud to say that I’ve been fiercely independent,” he said.
On the subject of the fairness of having to run in the midst of a federal corruption probe, Olszewski said he is dealing with it.
“Whether it’s fair or not is not the issue,” he said. “Sure it’s unfortunate for us, but neither (Burke) nor I have any control over it. It is an extra burden, but we will deal with it and go forward.”
Olszewski said experience is a key ingredient for judges.
“There will be new faces on the court,” he said. “They will need experienced people to help guide them and support them.”
Regarding the corruption probe, Olszewski said he has cooperated with the FBI, providing both information and assistance.
“It is not every day that a judge runs for retention in the midst of a widespread corruption scandal,” he said. “I can assure the citizens of Luzerne County that I am in no way involved with nor participated in any of the conduct which has led to the arrest of Luzerne County judges or other elected officials. I applaud the diligence of the federal investigators and prosecutors.”
Olszewski said he shares the outrage the scandal has produced.
“The damage is devastating,” he said. “I have played an important role and pledge to enthusiastically continue a concerted, determined and sustained effort to address fundamental flaws in the administration of a judicial system which permitted these abuses.”
Olszewski said the court en banc under the leadership of President Judge Chester B. Muroski “has moved swiftly and decisively” to curtail the power of the president judge and to ensure decisions regarding hiring and the expenditure of public funds are arrived at collectively and collegially.
“I humbly and simply ask the citizens of Luzerne County to vote to retain me based upon what I have accomplished throughout my public career both as district attorney and in 10 years on the bench,” he said. “I invite the media and the public to closely scrutinize the decisions I’ve made, the sentences I’ve imposed and the opinions I have authored. Decisions by elected officials – most importantly judges – must never be made for political or personal gain.”
Olszewski said for the past 18 years – eight as district attorney and 10 as judge – he has been dedicated to the law and to protecting citizens.
“I have been an outspoken critic of the conduct of the two former judges,” he said. “I have condemned anyone who has in any way profited from the illegal treatment of juveniles. That conduct cannot be tolerated and must never happen again.”
He said he has worked with Judge Muroski and his fellow judges to eliminate the previous dictatorial conduct enjoyed by the president judge.
“Court policy and procedure is now determined by participation of the entire court,” he said. “We have also enacted a series of reforms aimed at restoring public confidence in our court. This must be a long sustained and continued effort. I can provide experience and leadership to ensure these efforts continue.
“I respectfully ask our citizens to judge me on my record. If they do that, I know I will be successful.”