Colorful Judge John R. Walker retiring from Pa. bench

August 23, 2008|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- A few bare spots are beginning to show up on the chamber walls, although there still are plenty of hunting trophies, antiques and pieces of wildlife art festooning the office of Judge John R. Walker.

On Friday, he took down a painting of a wild turkey hen tending her chicks as he moved a day closer to his Jan. 2 retirement. It also was the day he submitted his retirement letter to Gov. Ed Rendell.

Like Johnny Cash building a Cadillac, Walker is dismantling his office one piece at a time, one day at a time.

"The best part of being a judge is that every day is different," said Walker, who has been on the bench 23 years and became president judge of the 39th Judicial District of the Court of Common Pleas in the early 1990s.


"Trying to arrive at the best solution is a challenge," Walker said. "Your sentence has to be stiff enough to get their attention. Of course, it varies from person to person."

If an offender spends too little time in jail, he will be back in court, having failed to learn the lesson, Walker said. Too much time behind bars will leave a person bitter and likely to return as well, he said.

Another challenge is dealing fairly and compassionately with the many defendants who have mental health issues, Walker said.

At 65, Walker could spend another half a decade on the bench before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, but he is ready to step down.

"Not that many more people come to the funeral if you put in the extra five years. In fact, probably less will be there because they died," Walker said. "If you want a lot of people at your funeral, die young."

"I'm going to miss him tremendously because of what I think is a refreshing attitude he brings to the bench," District Attorney John F. Nelson said.

"Lawyers, in general, talk about 'black robe fever,' where a judge morphs into someone who believes they are more intelligent and knowing than they were when they wore a business suit," Nelson said. "He never caught the fever."

"He brings humor into the courtroom, which I don't think is inappropriate," Nelson said.

Along with a touch of homespun philosophy, the judge has been known to break into song in court, emphasizing a point by crooning a few lines from a country and western tune.

"It's always entertaining," Nelson said.

More than once, a defendant has walked away with handcuffs on his wrists and a smile on his face, but Walker's comments can be cutting as well, particularly for those convicted of violent and sexual offenses and child abuse.

John Robert Walker Jr. was born June 3, 1943, in Chambersburg, but never met his father, who was killed on July 14 of that year while flying an RAF Spitfire fighter on bomber escort duty over France on Bastille Day.

Walker is the longest serving county elected official, having become district attorney at the age of 29 in 1972. He began his first 10-year term on the bench in 1986 and has won two retention elections since then.

The judge is a well-traveled man, having traveled in four of the seven continents. He expressed an urge Friday to add South America to the list with a trip to Peru to see the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu.

The Jan. 2 resignation date will allow the 39th District, which includes Fulton County, to hold an election for his replacement in 2009, Walker said. The state requires the vacancy to occur within 10 months of the next municipal election for there to be an election, he said.

Otherwise, an election would have to wait three years, and the fourth judge position likely would be filled by a gubernatorial appointment, Walker said.

Walker said he would be willing to work a day or two each week until his replacement is elected.

"They're going to be short next year with three judges ... I don't want to leave them in a bind," Walker said.

By a wide margin, Walker sentences more offenders than any judge in the 39th District, something Nelson said is a mark of his experience.

"As a prosecutor and on the bench, he has developed a knack for cutting through the superfluous stuff and getting right to the issue," Nelson said. "He has the confidence in his decision-making to make decisions quickly."

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