The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

December 21, 2012

Saylor is victim of judicial secrecy

Daily Item

---- — Northumberland County Judge Charles Saylor has been bit-by-bit building a case to demonstrate that he was right all along and that he should never have been removed from overseeing children's law cases in the county.

The conflict, as far as anyone has bothered to explain, began a year ago when a family objected that their child had been placed in foster care in an Old Order Mennonite home over the holidays. Saylor ordered that the child be removed from the Mennonite home.

This sparked an appeal by the county attorney who had been among those who had argued in favor of keeping the child in the Mennonite home. The appeals court judges sided with Saylor.

After the Saylor's initial decision, a special advocate office that Saylor had helped launch was evicted from the county courthouse. A short-time later, Saylor was removed from the children's law case.

All of that was public knowledge.

What has never been disclosed was what prompted President Judge Robert Sacavage to transfer Saylor. It has also never been publicly explained whether there was a separate complaint about Saylor filed with the judicial conduct board, and if so, whether the board ever issued a finding.

The judicial conduct board's reviews are completely secret. The judge that is the subject of a complaint only learns of the board's interest after investigators determine if there is cause to do more than a preliminary review. The design is intended to protect those who are closely involved in the court system so that they can report judicial wrongdoing without fear or reprisal.

As with most matters of secrecy, the situation can contribute to confusion or mistaken perceptions.

Saylor, from the outside, appears to be a victim of confidentiality-cloaked bureaucratic infighting. The only public evaluation of the judge's decision went his way.

While whistleblower protection is an important factor in any check on judicial authority, there are indications here that this challenge reflected inappropriate tactical behavior -- control exerted through accusation and intimidation over a difference of judgment.

The judge's apparent decision to openly challenge these tactics would lift the lid on publicly supported operations that have not, in the context of statewide data, produced sterling results for Northumberland County. Although this small ray of sunlight emanates from insider conflict, it may spotlight areas of much-needed improvement in youth and children's services.