WHEN SUPREME COURT justices make a ruling, we can read their decisions to see what they were thinking.

Unfortunately, the same insight is not so forthcoming on what state Chief Justice Ron Castille was thinking when he decided to provide oversight for a $200 million Family Court project that has been bungled so badly that at least $12 million in public dollars have been spent so far with no clear accounting of where the money went.

We don't know what he was thinking when he decided to fast-track the project and hired a lawyer to work on behalf of the state to find a site and line up the deal . . . at the same time the lawyer, Jeffrey Rotwitt, was getting fees from the developer. That piece of news came out in an investigation by the Inquirer, where Castille said he learned of it.

And we don't know what Castille was thinking when he decided to undertake a major development project with no public process, no bids, no

effort to make sure the spoils didn't go to the same small group of political insiders who so often get this work. Projects of this size are typically handled by the state's division of general services, which subjects projects of this size to bids. Did no one think to point this out to Castille earlier?

Castille's lawyer drafted a letter on behalf of the justice demanding invoices that support $12 million in payments made by the courts. That request is sterling evidence that Castille had no business overseeing the project: The time to ask for, and understand, those invoices was before they get paid, not after.

And while the project has been taken over by the state, that's not the end, only the beginning.

Castille's own investigation into the project is insufficient. The state's auditor general and/or the attorney general should launch an independent and thorough investigation to uncover where this public money went, and whether it was responsibly spent. (We wish the grand jury that just delivered a stunning forensics on the Legislature could tackle this one.)

And we'd like to also get a ruling from the state's Judicial Conduct board, not because we're accusing Castille of criminal wrongdoing - by most accounts, his work as a jurist is unimpeachable - but because the ethics of the kind of involvement he had in this project need to be clarified. After all, what's a Supreme Court justice doing as a point person on such a large and expensive project? He is in charge of administering the court system, but that means pushing for improvements to the system, like determining the need and ensuring funding for a new building, not picking out the carpets and drapes for that building.

As a point of comparison, imagine John Roberts supervising a $4 million renovation of the Supreme Court cafeteria.

Was the reason the division of general services was sidestepped related to the separation of powers within government? Public dollars are public dollars and should be subjected to scrutiny and transparency, no matter what branch of government is spending them.

Maintaining the public's confidence in the judiciary is the main job of Castille and every state judge. The stench that rises from the Family Court project certainly undermines confidence, if not in the justice system, then in the chief justice's wisdom in forgoing a more proper and public process.

Family Court is a symbol of justice to all, but particularly to women and minorities; the lack of their public input and participation in favor of political insiders, curdles the power this symbol - in a new and expanded building - could have had. That's a real shame. *