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Saylor to step up as Pa. chief justice

The veteran judge will head a scandal-laden court.

HARRISBURG - The man who will take over next week as the state's next chief justice comes from a small town in western Pennsylvania, and worked as a prosecutor and a lawyer in private practice before becoming a judge more than two decades ago.

Thomas G. Saylor will be sworn in as the state's next chief justice on Tuesday after 17 years on the state's highest court. He will succeed Ronald D. Castille, who this year reached the mandatory judicial retirement age of 70.

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, a 68-year-old Republican, has a reputation for mild-mannered collegiality and a scholarly approach. Castille said he gave Saylor some of the court's most difficult opinions to write.

"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 Monday. "It may not be a point I agree with, but that's the way it is with seven justices."

Castille, who is also a Republican, described Saylor as a political moderate.

For at least the near future, Saylor will lead a court that is down to five members. In addition to Castille's retirement, Seamus McCaffery resigned in late October after being implicated in a pornographic e-mail scandal that involved employees of the state Attorney General's Office.

Earlier this year, Justice Joan Orie Melvin also resigned after having been convicted in a public corruption case. Her seat is now held by Corry Stevens, Gov. Corbett's choice to fill in for Melvin on the high court until the three spots go before the voters in 2015.

"I think during the term of Chief Justice Saylor, his actions will speak volumes with regard to instilling public confidence" in the courts, said Pittsburgh lawyer Joseph Del Sole, who served on Superior Court with Saylor. "Hopefully the court will be off the front pages of the newspapers."

Saylor "cares deeply" about the integrity of the courts, said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

"He will work tirelessly to earn the public's confidence in the courts, following a very rocky period," Marks said.

Saylor, born in Meyersdale, earned a law degree at Columbia University in 1972 after undergraduate work at the University of Virginia. He was a Somerset County prosecutor, headed the state Bureau of Consumer Protection, and became the first deputy attorney general for the state in 1984. He worked at a Harrisburg law office before winning election to Superior Court in 1993.

Saylor beat 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.

Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne Law School, described Saylor as "a real intellectual force" on the court, and noted he has taken a particular interest in the professional development and continuing education of sitting judges.

"He's very effective, because he commands a lot of respect, because when he speaks, it's very carefully thought-out and people listen," Gormley said.

Castille will administer the oath inside the Supreme Court's courtroom in the Capitol.