Centre County Judge Won’t Seek Retention

September 11, 2015

A judge at the center of a text-message-related controversy in Centre County will not seek to remain on the bench in the upcoming election.
In a statement to the press, Centre County Court of Common Pleas Judge Bradley P. Lunsford said he will not seek re-election to the seat he has held for nearly 10 years, and plans to retire when his term ends starting January 2016.

The Pennsylvania Department of State also confirmed that Lunsford has withdrawn his bid for retention in the November election. Lunsford submitted written notice Sept. 3, the department said.

"It has been a true honor and privilege to serve as a judge of the Centre County Court of Common Pleas. I am thankful to this community for the amazing opportunity you have given me to serve as a jurist," Lunsford said in a statement to the press. "Throughout my 20 years on the bench, I have dedicated my career to improving our justice system and our community."

According to a spokeswoman for the DOS, because Lunsford withdrew before Sept. 4, the county will be able to elect a new judge in the upcoming municipal election. Parties can nominate candidates by Sept. 14, and independent candidates can also enter the race.

Centre County President Judge Thomas K. Kistler said he wished Lunsford well.

"On behalf of the judges of Centre County, we want to wish our colleague well in his future endeavors," Kistler said in an emailed statement. "On behalf of the entire court system, we are grateful that the timing of this decision allows for a special election to be held on Nov. 3. This will allow the voters of Centre County to fill the vacancy, and to maintain our court at full strength."

Lunsford's decision comes as Centre County government is embroiled in numerous lawsuits pitting county officials against judicial officials.

Records released last year showed that Lunsford had exchanged hundreds of text messages with members of the Centre County District Attorney's Office. Those phone records were released following right-to-know requests and included in criminal court filings. Whether or not county officials properly released those records is an issue currently pending before the Commonwealth Court.

Defense attorneys with cases before Lunsford contended that the phone records showed he should have recused himself from their cases. Defense attorneys also pointed to pictures taken of Lunsford with a former district attorney at a concert and following a community race and later posted on a social media website.

Lunsford maintained in court filings that the texts were not related to the cases and he had no bias in favor of the District Attorney's Office. The district attorney has also maintained that no improper communication took place, and that district attorneys and judges often must discuss legitimate issues, including arranging wiretaps.

By December, Lunsford was taken off hearing non-DUI criminal cases, and earlier this year several lawsuits were filed over right-to-know requests regarding other judges' phone records and issues related to the controversy.

According to court papers, some of the text messages were sent when Lunsford was on the bench during trial.

Among other things, the filings also included an affidavit from a court reporter who said that, during one of the recesses in an unrelated 2012 criminal case, Lunsford had complained that District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller was "bitching to him" about the way he was handling the trial.

The affidavit was included in an application for relief filed by attorney Bernard F. Cantorna in the case Commonwealth v. McClure. Other filings in that appeal included references to the social media photos and the text messages.

That case is on appeal after the defendant was convicted of aggravated assault, simple assault, endangering the welfare of a child and recklessly endangering another person.
In a response, prosecutors argued that the issues raised were based on rumor and "specious innuendo in flagrant disregard for the Rules of Professional Conduct."

Various post-trial motions and attempts to subpoena members of the Centre County District Attorney's Office were part of a "relentless fishing expedition," said the brief, which was filed by Bruce L. Castor Jr. of Rogers Castor in his capacity as special assistant district attorney. The filing further said that all of the claims had been vetted and rejected by the court.

Lunsford was elected to the Centre County Court of Common Pleas in 2006. Before that he served as a magisterial district judge for 10 years, and was a public defender and later a prosecutor in Centre County.

Lunsford cited the creation of the Centre County Courthouse K-9 Program and the DUI Court program as highlights of his career.

"I can guarantee that my service to the community will not end with my retirement," he said in the statement.