Judge Sacavage looks back on an eventful 36 years
From Mount Carmel Borough solicitor to Northumberland County district attorney to county president judge, Robert B. Sacavage's career in public service spanned 36 years.
That career will end Monday with his retirement from the bench after 18 years. His last official acts will be to administer the oath of office to two county officials elected on Nov. 5, Coroner James F. Kelley and Controller Chris Grayson.
He will still be available for some assignments, in Northumberland County and elsewhere, as a senior judge. But he is happy, he says, to no longer have the responsibilities for administering the civil and criminal courts.
To college, then back
When Sacavage arrived on the public scene, he was already well known, especially to the people of his hometown, because of his athletic accomplishments at Mount Carmel Area High School. The state wrestling title he earned his senior year and standout performance as a member of MCA's 1968 Southern Division championship team had made him a household name.
After high school, he continued to excel in wrestling at Columbia University and after earning a bachelor's degree in history there, went on to earn a law degree at Villanova University. Although he enjoyed spending four years in New York City and three years in Philadelphia, there was no hesitation, he says, in his decision to return to Mount Carmel to practice law. The advantages of being close to his family and the ability to engage in outdoor activities had far more appeal for him, he said, than life in a major metropolis.
Sacavage opened a law office on Oak Street in 1976. Two years later, he was named borough solicitor, a position he held for the next 17 years, even during his tenure from 1984 to 1995 as county district attorney.
Sacavage explained that when he was district attorney, that position was considered part time, paying $21,000 per year. For economic reasons, it was necessary for him to continue practicing civil law.
Around the same time, Sacavage was also appointed solicitor of Kulpmont Borough. Coincidentally, at the beginning of his tenure, Kulpmont was wracked by the "Snowgate" scandal in which a contractor and some council members were charged as a result of kickbacks being offered for snow removal. He remembers urging some council members, already implicated and with their resignations imminent, to attend a public meeting to keep the borough functioning by approving payment of routine bills.
Feet wet in politics
Early on, Sacavage, who already had strong ties to the county Democratic Party, became a front-row observer for one of the county's most dramatic political developments of the last quarter of the 20th Century. John Mazur, of Mount Carmel, the powerful chairman of the party, was challenged for re-election in 1978 by William Curran, of Coal Township, who had the backing of county Commissioner James P. Kelley. Curran won.
"There I was, a young guy who was just getting my feet wet in the Democratic Party, and I found myself involved, along with others, in trying to save John Mazur," he said.
Sacavage lists Mazur among those in public service that he most admired. "John did a lot of good," he said. Mazur's political career, he noted, was all about helping people.
Kelley, then a minority commissioner, emerged from the 1978 chairmanship fight as the county's most powerful Democrat. Sacavage recalls that as Kelley was putting together a county Democratic ticket for 1979, the commissioner was concerned not only about geographical balance, but uniting the party. Kelley, concerned about hard feelings among Mount Carmel Democrats as a result of the Mazur ouster, asked Sacavage to consider a run for district attorney.
"I wasn't inclined to make the race," Sacavage said, noting a race against Republican incumbent James Rosini was akin to a suicide mission. A young Shamokin attorney, G. Robert Fitzpatrick, also mentioned as a potential candidate, was also reluctant to become a candidate, Sacavage added.
Mazur, however, encouraged Sacavage to run in 1979. "John was very magnanimous even though he was defeated for chairman," Sacavage said. "John was a true party man. He said that when the party calls upon you, you should be prepared to respond."
Sacavage ran and not to his surprise at all, he lost. But as a reward, he was appointed Northumberland County solicitor.
Sacavage describes Kelley, who was a county commissioner from 1972 to 1996, as being "one of the guys who was in politics for all the right reasons."
Throughout his career, Sacavage remembers, Kelley was guided by a desire to get things done.
"Kelley always had the county's business in full view," he said. "He commented, time and time again, that 'good government is good politics.' He had an ability to get along with people."
In 1983, Sacavage ran for DA again, this time winning. His opponent that year - and in the 1987 and 1991 campaigns - was Frank Konopka, a Shamokin attorney that he very much likes and respects. Sacavage said he has always appreciated Konopka's sense of humor and dry wit, and still regrets that circumstances cast them in the role of political opponents.
Sacavage's election as DA in 1983 made county political history. It marked the first time since 1927 that a Democrat was elected to the office.
The early days as DA were, for Sacavage, a baptism of fire, After his election, but before he took office, Shamokin police officer David Witmer was shot and killed during a mutual aid call in Trevorton. Rosini, then still DA, contacted Sacavage and involved him right away, because it would be Sacavage's job, as DA, to handle the case.
There were many high-profile homicide and major felony cases during Sacavage's 12 years as DA. One that received national exposure was "Commonwealth v. Auker," featured in David Fisher's recent best-seller, "Hard Evidence." Sacavage successfully prosecuted the case with space technology and the assistance of NASA scientists. Through their help, Sacavage was able to enhance video evidence that linked the defendant to the homicide. The case was also featured on a television program, "The New Detectives," on the Discovery Channel. Sacavage noted the program aired Dec. 29, 1998, and has been rerun several times since then.
There was also substantial national media attention to another murder case, "Commonwealth v. Showers," which relied on circumstantial evidence, and eventually an exhumation of the victim's body.
Sacavage looks with pride on his efforts, while district attorney, in establishing a four-county drug task force, a county consumer affairs bureau, a special prosecutor unit for child abuse cases and a program to assist crime victims.
He had nothing but praise for all who served as assistant district attorneys. Among them was the present district attorney, Tony Rosini, who served as chief deputy DA during all of Sacavage's three terms.
Won judgeship in '95
Sacavage was elected judge in 1995. The court opening resulted from the announced retirement of President Judge Samuel C. Ranck, although Ranck continued to log additional service in the county as a senior judge assigned by the state court administrator's office.
Judges, like local school board members, can run in both parties. Sacavage did so, and won both the Democratic and Republican primaries. His 1995 opponent in both primaries was George O. Wagner, of Riverside. Earlier, as a resident of Montour County, Wagner served as a member of the state House of Representatives and as Montour County district attorney. The double nominations virtually assured Sacavage's election in November.
Upon completing his first 10-year term, Sacavage won a retention election in 2005. Had he not chosen to retire now, he could have served in that second term through the beginning of January 2016. Sacavage became president judge in January 1998.
As president judge for the last 16 years, Sacavage was, in effect, the court's chief executive officer with responsibilities for establishing policies, proposing budgets, overseeing the operation of the magisterial district courts and hiring courts. These administrative responsibilities were in addition to his busy schedule as judge for a wide variety of criminal and civil cases.
In addition to day-to-day court functions, president judges throughout county history have felt the need to advocate for court improvements or programs designed to improve the efficiency of the legal system. Sacavage was no exception, and like his predecessor, this occasionally required him to "butt heads" with county commissioners, a natural result of the separation of government powers.
Sacavage admits it is not easy to deal with strong-willed county commissioners, but it's the president judge's responsibility, he says, to maintain the court's independence.
"Judges are not allowed to engage in politics," Sacavage remarked, "but the president judge, because of his administrative duties may speak out in defense of the court."
He recalls, in particular, the battles over refurbishing the courtrooms. He also led the charge to convince the commissioners and, ultimately, the state legislature which made the actual decision, of the need to add a third judge. The third judgeship was approved for the 2001 election. Current Judge Charles Saylor won that 2001 election.
Two judges not enough
Because of the increased caseload, it would have been impossible to continue operating the county court effectively with only two judges, Sacavage said. In fact, he said, Northumberland County really needs the equivalent of 3½ judges to function well. This actually happened, he added, when the county was fortunate to have the services of Ranck as senior judge. Sacavage greatly admired Ranck, identifying him as the person in the county legal profession who influenced him the most.
Because of fiscal considerations (judges are paid by the state), there will likely be no one appointed to fill the vacancy that results when Sacavage retires. The county will have the benefit of a senior judge, but for no more than 10 days a month. So, until the 2015 election, the Northumberland County bench will essentially be reduced from 3 to 2½ judges, Sacavage noted. Two new judges will be selected in 2015 (William H. Wiest, who will now be president judge, will be retiring then).
Sacavage has been approved for service as a senior judge, and he hopes some of that service will eventually be in Northumberland County, although, he points out, assignments are at the discretion of the state court administrator's office.
Use of technology
Sacavage said the court has tried to keep up with the expanded caseload by taking advantage of new technologies. including use of video equipment for arraigning defendants.
"The only time you actually need to have a defendant physically present is for trials," Sacavage pointed out. Use of videos saves the expense involved in transporting defendants, sometimes from out-of-county jails or state facilities.
During his tenure on the bench, the accelerated disposition program was expanded. And thanks to greater reliance on house arrest, Sacavage added, taxpayers benefited by not having to pay for prison time for about 100 to 150 defendants.
Sacavage championed the formation of treatment courts for driving under the influence, drug offenders and veterans, all of which proved successful, he said.
His fellow judges, the district attorney's office, public defender and all related court agencies deserve credit for the professionalism and hard work they demonstrate in maintaining an efficient court system, Sacavage added.
Sacavage said his career would never have been possible without the love and guidance he received over the years from his parents, the late Charles and Betty Sacavage. He has three siblings, Charles, an adjunct professor of history at Alvernia College; Beverly A. Mariano, business manager of Mariano Construction Co., Bloomsburg; and Greg, athletic director at Mount Carmel Area High School.
He is the father of three daughters. Lydia, 31, a graduate of Penn State University with a psychology degree, works for Deloitte in Harrisburg. Alexandra, 29, a Villanova University Law School graduate, is employed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Santina, 25, a 2011 graduate of Penn State University, is a probation officer in the Northumberland County Adult Probation and Parole Office.