By JENNIFER FITCH
7:09 PM EST, December 29, 2012
Franklin County (Pa.) Court of Common Pleas Judge Richard J. Walsh experienced a milestone in his life Dec. 20 and 21.
Walsh presided over his last criminal trial before retirement.
“I’m astounded how many (criminal trials) I’ve done in 15 years,” he said.
Walsh, who hangs up his robes Jan. 3, focused on personal injury and municipal law when in private practice from 1982 to 1997. He ran for Franklin and Fulton counties’ fourth judge position, which was newly created at the time, under the encouragement of colleagues and other members of the bar.
After two years of retirement, he’ll have opportunities to return to Franklin and Fulton counties occasionally as a senior judge.
“I’d like very much to come back here and pinch hit,” Walsh said. “We’re very busy as a five-judge district.”
Working with dependent children can be an eye-opening experience, and many of them get a different, positive start because of the court system, Walsh said. Adoptions are all-around happy occasions, he said.
The pace of criminal jury trials is unmatched, Walsh said. The 39th Judicial District is handling as many of those every two months as it formerly did in a year, he said.
Walsh said he anticipates his replacement, who will be elected next year, will campaign on his or her principles. He said he would remind that person to be fair and independent, and not approach the bench with an agenda.
“Make every unpopular decision you need to make if it’s the right decision,” Walsh said. “No one elected us to take the easy way out.”
A judge also needs to be responsible for maintaining decorum while court is in session, as the courtroom needs to be approached with sanctity, Walsh said.
Walsh, who lives in the Waynesboro, Pa., area, said he believes the courts need to adapt to circumstances, such as the economic pressures affecting foreclosures and child support. When money is tight, people do more “dumb or criminal things” to get what they need or think they need, he said.
Pennsylvania is moving toward having more specialized courts, such as the ones that focus solely on driving under the influence charges, mental health, veterans or drugs. Those nontraditional courts, while not in place in Franklin or Fulton counties, can combine support from social services with incarceration.
Walsh, 62, described those courts as a different way of thinking, and said one of Franklin County’s answers to that mindset is the Day Reporting Center. Through the Criminal Justice Advisory Board, Walsh helped to develop the Day Reporting Center, where convicted individuals can get rehabilitative services.
The Criminal Justice Advisory Board recently thanked Walsh for his work over the past 15 years.
Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said Walsh agreed to lead the board at a time when “reality in Franklin County changed and crime was up.”
After studying zoology and biochemistry as an undergraduate at Penn State University, Walsh served in the U.S. Navy’s medical service corps and hospital labs. He enrolled at Dickinson School of Law intending to focus on personal injury work.
Walsh said he already is thinking about how he’ll miss his secretary and other colleagues from the courthouse, including Judge Carol L. Van Horn, whom was enrolled in law school with him.
“I know I’m going to miss the people around here,” he said.
The time was right for retirement, Walsh said, because his wife, Peggy, also is retiring from her teaching job. The pair hope to travel and enjoy time with their children, Hilary and Daniel.
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