HOLLIDAYSBURG - On a dreary afternoon the day after Christmas, attorney Wade A. Kagarise looked at the "shingle" that hung outside his office at 300 Union St., a block from the Blair County Courthouse, and studied how to slip it off the two hooks that allow it to sway in the wind.
He knows that sometime this week he'll take down the sign and clear his desk after 13 years in private practice and 16 years as a part-time prosecutor and move on to the next phase of his life by taking the oath as a common pleas court judge.
Blair County Court Administrator Janice Meadows said that Kagarise will be among eight court-related officials who will be administered the oath of office at 1 p.m. Friday, including Judge Elizabeth Doyle, District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio, Sheriff Mitchell F. Cooper, Prothonotary Carol A. Newman, Jury Commissioners Joy A. Foreman and Vincent P. Frank and Magisterial District Judge Steven D. Jackson.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Judge-elect Wade A. Kagarise stands in front of his Union Avenue law office in Hollidaysburg. Kagarise will be among eight court-related officials who will be adminstered the oath of office at 1 p.m. Friday.
Kagarise and Frank are the only newcomers, while Newman is the dean of local elected officials, beginning her sixth term in office.
To Kagarise, his new job is "bittersweet." Then he paused, explaining that might not be the best word to describe what he wants to say.
He is "excited and looking forward to begin another opportunity for public service," but he emphasized, "I'm going to miss what I did before. I enjoyed being a prosecutor and in private practice, and I will look back on them as great opportunities."
The 40-year-old Kagarise comes into office as a courthouse insider, a person who has worked in the DA's office and was one of two deputy district attorneys in charge of overseeing the disposition of cases.
For those many years, he prosecuted major cases - his last being the Nicholas Horner double homicide trial.
Horner was convicted and is serving consecutive life terms behind bars.
Kagarise's future colleagues, President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva and Judges Daniel J. Milliron, Timothy M. Sullivan, and recently retired Judge Hiram G. Carpenter, all came from private law firms, and Judge Elizabeth Doyle, beginning her second term, was a magisterial district judge in Hollidaysburg before taking the county bench a decade ago.
But unlike those veteran judges, Kagarise is coming into a more complex court system, one burdened with record numbers of criminal and civil cases and several specialty courts, addressing adult, family and juvenile drug issues and repeat driving under the influence offenders.
As he prepares to don a judge's robe, Kagarise was asked how his many years as a prosecutor will sway his handling of criminal cases and what does he think of specialty courts and their need.
In the beginning
The judge-elect said that he became a prosecutor in 1998 when he was hired by then District Attorney Dave Gorman, who now serves as a Pennsylvania senior deputy attorney general.
That job came open after Kagarise graduated from Widener University Law School's Harrisburg campus.
During his years as a law-school student, Kagarise interned in the Blair DA's office.
But he said his principal goal at the time was not to focus just on the prosecution side of the courtroom. He said in his mind back then, he wanted to eventually work as a prosecutor and as a defense counsel.
"I saw the value in both," he said.
"The more I was a prosecutor, the more the reason not to stop doing that. I got to be an integral part in seeing that justice was done," he said, explaining why he never took up defense work.
He also realized that defense lawyers "didn't have a monopoly on the protection of people's constitutional rights."
He said it was his duty as a prosecutor to protect the rights of those charged as well as a seek justice.
Kagarise said he saw his role with the DA's office to be fair to defendants and he has always tried to do that.
Becoming a judge won't alter that goal, he said.
"I'm going to call balls as balls and strikes as strikes. ... I'm going to protect people's rights," he explained.
He believes in Blair County's treatment courts, but he also thinks punishment and retribution are all part of the sentencing mix.
"I think treatment and treatment courts play an important role in sentencing," he said.
The largest of the treatment courts, Kopriva's drug court and Milliron's DUI court, receive input from the district attorney as to who can be enrolled.
"I've supported these courts," he said.
The juvenile drug court under Doyle and family drug court supervised by Sullivan are "appropriate," he said.
And Kagarise pointed out that the credit card court helps the judges organize and dispose of hundreds of lawsuits each year.
Two other possible courts have been mentioned: a veterans court and a mental health court.
Kagarise thinks those programs should be studied first because they don't address particular conditions, like drug or alcohol abuse.
An Army veteran, Kagarise said it may be better to direct defendants to the VA hospital if there issues that can be addressed there and to mental health professionals rather than establishing separate courts.
"Do we need those special courts? The answer might be 'no,'" he stated.
Kagarise said he may be interested in seeking a jobs court because so many who get into trouble with the law lack life and job skills.
The judge-elect said he has made it a point to study the overall justice system since his years as a criminology and political science student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and he concluded judges alone can't address the many issues facing the courts.
"We are all in this together," he said.
During his campaign for judge last year, he said he emphasized "how important it is for people to have an interest in the justice system."
Participation in jury duty is one part. Operation Our Town is yet another example.
Along this line, Kagarise said, "People need to help me and the other judges to help move things forward."
He did not want to go further than that but said he will have more to say on the subject as time goes on.
Likes public affairs
While Kagarise is best known for his work in the district attorney's office, for the past 13 years he has had a private practice that included custody, divorce and labor cases. He practiced law in Bedford, Huntingdon, and Cambria counties as well as other counties in the state.
He said that he believes he has experience in about 95 percent of the types of cases that come before a county judge and vows he will get up to speed on the others.
Meadows has not scheduled any criminal work for the new judge during the first six months of 2014.
Kagarise said as far as he knows there is no rule that would prevent him from handling criminal cases, but he believes a six-month hiatus on hearing criminal offenses will be enough time to allow present cases in the DA's office to make their way through the system.
There will be another change in his life.
Kagarise was an elected member of the Pennsylvania State Republican Committee and has been involved in politics since he was a very young.
He had to give up his seat as part of the state's Republican leadership when he decided in the summer of 2012 to run for judge. His position on the state committee was assumed by Sheriff Cooper.
While his new job calls for him to avoid politics, he said he will still be allowed to speak out on issues that are important to the judiciary.
As Kagarise explained, running for judge meant a change in the life he has known, and he said, unlike many lawyers, being a judge was never a goal he pursued.
He said Carpenter's retirement announcement in mid-2011 "was honorable for the system," meaning that it gave local attorneys time to consider if they wanted to run for the office, and he decided to consider the position after concluding he had the experience and knowledge to be successful.
And, he said, it gave him another opportunity to serve the community.
His interest in public affairs and the legal system goes way back. He can't really pinpoint when, why or how he began his course toward public service. There just wasn't an epiphany of sorts, Kagarise explained.
He said his family, his parents and stepparents were all hard workers.
"I was surrounded by hard workers," he said, and he thinks that may have had something to do with directing him toward public service.
He remembers as a junior high school student in Holllidaysburg, where he lived with his mother and stepfather, Patty and George Wilson, expressing an interest in the legal system. His father and stepmother, Roderick and Ginny Kagarise, lived in Bedford County.
"I told people [in junior high] I wanted to be a lawyer."
How did his friends react?
"They just laughed," he said.
"It wasn't just the law. I liked policy and political issues at a young age also. I just always had an interest in it. I just believed as a citizen I didn't want to be a bystander. I wanted to be in the arena."
"Nobody inspired me to be a lawyer. I actually believe it was a decision given to me by God to be interested in things like this."
While Kagarise will be sworn in Friday, he likely won't hear his first case until Jan. 18, because he will be attending a weeklong seminar for new judges in Harrisburg.