Judge at Center of Reassessments Cares Deeply for Common Man

Article excerpt

If judges are the new priesthood, R. Stanton Wettick Jr. is something of a monk.

The Common Pleas senior judge who has steered Allegheny County's contentious reassessment process for 15 years keeps an out-of-sight office in the City-County Building, Downtown. To get to it, visitors enter through another judge's office and climb a cramped wooden staircase to a chamber filled with furniture that one local lawyer described as "pedestrian."

Wettick, 73, a Democrat from Point Breeze, got his law degree from Yale and began his career at a large Downtown firm that became the international giant K&L Gates. After three years, he left to teach law, then direct a struggling nonprofit that provides legal services to the poor.

He "was dedicating a career to being underpaid and overworked," said Burton Morris, a Harrisburg lawyer who led the search committee that put Wettick on the bench in 1976.

Wettick prefers to wear a gray suit, blue shirt and red or purple tie to the typical judicial black robe. Instead of dictating from the bench, he sinks into a chair at eye level with the court reporter and chews over the county's next move with a wide table of school district and municipal attorneys.

"He's no drama," said attorney Heather Heidelbaugh, 53, one of four Republicans on County Council. "In 23 years, I maybe have seen him visibly angry three or four times."

Yet drama swirls around the case that has put him squarely in the public eye.

In the past month, he held two to three conferences weekly, including one on New Year's Eve, to prod defiant county officials to complete a long-delayed, $11 million reassessment. His ruling on Thursday delays using the assessment's results until 2013, and he avoided heightening a potential political battle with new County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who declared the reassessment "null and void," accused Wettick of judicial activism and tried to defy his orders.

"The law wins the day," Wettick told the Tribune-Review in a 2006 interview about reassessments. "Whatever the law says is how I make my decision. I'm not the one who creates how property can be assessed. That's for elected officials to do."

Wettick is one of two judges in the Commerce and Complex Litigation Center and is the special motions judge, in which he hears arguments involving evidence disputes, amendments to civil complaints and dozens of other types of legal pleadings.

"His workload far exceeds the workload of a senior judge," said Administrative Judge Terrence O'Brien.

Wettick is, in essence, a full-time judge, though he gets paid for working about 10 days a month, O'Brien said. "I just let him do his thing up there on the eighth floor. ... He loves the work, and he's universally regarded as one of the best judges in this county."

Wettick declined comment for this story. Heidelbaugh said that's not surprising. Publicly advocating for himself in the middle of a high-profile case might be interpreted as a violation of judicial canons, and Wettick is scrupulous about such matters. He abhors social settings in which judges and lawyers would fraternize, she said.

Fitzgerald accused Wettick of exceeding his authority last week when he ordered County Manager Jim Flynn and three other subordinates to ignore the county executive's orders to stop the reassessment or else face a contempt hearing.

"We've got judicial activism subverting the will of the people," Fitzgerald said.

"To say that this man doesn't care about the poor is false," Heidelbaugh said. "Could he be wrong on this case? Sure. But to say he doesn't care about the common man? That's false."

'A certain humility'

Gov. Milton Shapp appointed Wettick to fill a court vacancy in 1976, two years before he appointed Ralph Cappy, who became chief justice of the state Supreme Court, and Eugene B. Strassburger, now a senior Superior Court judge. …