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The Empty Bench

The court's most diligent judge

By Bill Heltzel
Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's Friday afternoon, and most of the courtrooms in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court are dark and silent.

But in the courtroom of Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr., it's ''Happy Hour.'' The place is packed with lawyers, but the fare is nonintoxicating. Wettick is serving up rulings in a small mountain of civil cases.

Happy Hour is the irreverent name lawyers have given to Motion Day, Wettick's Friday ritual in which they line up for quick rulings on procedural and evidentiary matters.

While many other judges in Allegheny County's court system have called it a week and locked their courtrooms, Wettick will join the lawyers in pushing more than 150 pending cases closer to completion.

Court observers said Happy Hour is an exemplar of an efficient court. Bad cases are weeded out, good cases get moved along and iffy cases are settled.

It also helps to illustrate why Wettick, 59, won the highest rating for diligence in a survey of trial lawyers by the Allegheny County Bar Association a year ago.

He also ranked best for impartiality, legal ability and temperament, and placed second to Judge Paul Zavarella in the survey's only other category, the general confidence that lawyers have in the judges.

Attorneys regularly include Wettick on their short list of the county's hardest working judges. Where the 90-minute lunch break is the preferred standard, Wettick's lunch is a cup of coffee-flavored yogurt and a bowl of Grape Nuts eaten in his chambers while working.

He typically starts earlier and stays later than other judges.

In the Pittsburgh Legal Journal, where every development in every civil court case is tracked, Wettick's name almost invariably is attached to more orders than any other civil judge.

At first glance, Wettick's courtroom at Happy Hour resembles an unruly legal marketplace.

Lawyers hunt out their opponents in the jammed courtroom by calling out names over the din of small talk and last-minute haggling over landlord-tenant disputes, arbitration cases and general docket cases.

Many issues are not contested. Attorneys simply line up, present their motions and get Wettick's signature.

In contested cases, attorneys make brief arguments, and Wettick usually rules on the spot.

Wettick wears a suit but no robe, fostering a relaxed atmosphere, and he banters with attorneys during the uncontested motions.

He sits at a floor-level desk and takes papers himself, so as not to waste a clerk's time passing documents up to the bench. More importantly, the lower desk encourages interaction.

His courtroom style is much like his classroom style at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is an adjunct law professor. He seems to enjoy the intellectual give and take and teaching. When an attorney's argument is ill-considered, he gently cajoles and instructs.

''I want this to be a problem-solving exercise,'' Wettick explains later.

He is hungry for information, peppering attorneys with pointed questions. But he gets impatient with unnecessary detail. He wants to know the core facts supporting a specific legal point, and he doesn't tolerate the squeezing of facts to fit the argument.

Although not required to do so, he explains his rulings. And when he takes motions under advisement, he often writes opinions that he then has indexed and published. He reasons that lawyers who know how he thinks are less likely to take up court time with unwinnable motions.

''It is essential that I give clear rules and directions. If I waltz around, they'll waltz around,'' he said.

Written opinions serve court efficiency in another way.

''He creates new rules that get codified into law by the Supreme Court,'' said David Armstrong, a senior partner at Dickie McCamey & Chilcote.

Wettick once dismissed a case because neither party had acted in two years and the plaintiff couldn't give a good reason for not acting. His ruling was appealed to the state Supreme Court, where it passed muster, making the two-year rule state law.

''We had a whole lot of cases dismissed (as a result of the ruling) deadwood cases that no one was going to pursue but that were costing clients money and clogging up the system,'' Armstrong said.

During the Motions Day monitored by the Post-Gazette, Wettick handled 76 uncontested motions and 43 contested motions in a morning and two afternoon sessions. Another 33 scheduled cases vanished, probably because lawyers had worked out problems at the last minute.

All this took three hours and fifteen minutes of court time. The work was finished by 3:13 p.m., earlier than usual, according to court personnel, but long after many other courtrooms had been vacated for the day.

Much of Wettick's work is done behind the scenes on complex cases. These are lawsuits that involve multiple parties and issues or are expected to take up more than 10 trial days. All of them go to Wettick first.

He handles the avalanche of paperwork that is filed before such cases come to trial. The actual trials can be handled by other judges, though Wettick retains most of them.

He said his workday usually begins around 8:30 a.m., an hour earlier than many judges, and he permits few interruptions.

On most days he leaves by 5 p.m. to play tennis. But Wettick said he then works at home for a couple of hours, and he usually works either one day over the weekend or late into Friday night.

Lawyers said he also is known to take work with him on vacations, though Wettick said that is a practice he's trying to break.

Wettick has a reputation as an activist, liberal jurist, perhaps because of his previous work as head of Neighborhood Legal Services. He also makes bold rulings in controversial cases.

Last year, for example, he declared that a 5-year freeze on property assessments was illegal and ordered a county-wide reassessment. He also ordered an end to Wilkinsburg School District's privatization of Turner Elementary School.

Lawyers familiar with Wettick's work said he serves court efficiency in another way. He is rarely reversed by appeals courts, so cases don't come back to his court for more action.

''I've looked at this man and his career and asked myself, why does he do so much? What does he get out of it?'' Armstrong said. ''I don't believe he gets anything but the challenge of doing it and the pride of having a good court.''

Lack of a comprehensive evaluation system allows poor work habits of judges to go unchecked

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