York County judge's spiritual awakening takes him to other side of the bench


Some attorneys spend years mounting campaigns to be elected as county judges, hoping to be among a select few chosen to don the black robe and mete out justice.

But for Tom Kelley — twice elected York County common pleas judge by voters — presiding over the fates of others isn't the pinnacle of what he now considers success.

Kelley, 51, retired Friday after 12 years on the bench, two years into his second 10-year term. He was first elected in 2003, at the age of 39.

"I don't want to judge people anymore," he said. "It's a lonely position ... especially if you are an empathetic human being. ... I suffer every sentence I hand down."

Kelley confirmed he understood he was giving up a substantial salary and benefits. In Pennsylvania, county common pleas judges earn about $176,500 annually, according to the Pennsylvania Code.

"I have good friends who ask me, 'Are you nuts?' But it's what I have to do," he said. "Ten years from now, I don't want to be saying 'what if.'"

He said staying at a job he no longer finds fulfilling would, in some ways, "be like waiting for a rich family member to die."

Kelley said he's not interested in the trappings of success. A recent spiritual awakening has him striving in a different direction.

"What I'm in search of is contentment," he said, "You're always working toward it. ... With someone like me, it's a constant endeavor to remain satisfied."

Wants to be advocate: The now-former judge — who's also a former top York County prosecutor and a former York City councilman — is eager to represent people again.

"My greatest strength is as an advocate ... (and) there are people out there who need a strong advocate," Kelley said.

He's excited about the prospect of doing trial work again, especially passionately arguing on behalf of a client and forging connections with jurors.

Judges are supposed to be dispassionate, "and that's just not right for me at this point in my life," Kelley said.

"I'll consider myself successful if I move into my next phase (as a private attorney) and am content," he said.

Kelley is in the process of setting up a private practice in a building he recently bought at 103 E. Philadelphia St., which he is renovating himself. He's painted walls, ripped up old carpet and is tearing out a kitchen to make a conference room.

"I just want to get working on helping people," he said.

Kelley said he envisions his practice eventually supporting a number of staffers and attorneys, but for right now it's a one-man operation.

"And I'm a hard worker," he said.

'Damned fine judge': "I think Tom finally figured out he looks better in a suit than in a robe," Common Pleas Judge Harry M. Ness quipped.

Turning serious, he confirmed Kelley is a hard worker.

"He's a damned fine judge, but he was a damned fine attorney, too," Ness said. "We're going to miss him on the bench. ... I hope that his retirement is the dream he thinks (it will be)."

Ness said he thinks he understands Kelley's desire to get back in the trial game.

"From the bench, we don't always see great advocacy" from attorneys, he said, so sometimes it's easy for judges to think, "I could do better."

Kelley said the best part about being a York County judge was the fraternity he felt with, and the respect he has for, his fellow judges.

He alerted them more than a year ago about his plans to retire, according to a news release from Common Pleas President Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh.

Kelley's caseload will be distributed among the remaining York County judges, the release states.

Judicial shortage: Kelley's retirement leaves York County short three judges on its 15-judge bench, and that number will increase to four when Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock, a colonel in the Army Reserve, is mobilized next month to help battle terrorism overseas. His deployment is expected to last about a year.

Linebaugh recently postponed his retirement because of the shortage, and Common Pleas Judge John W. Thompson Jr. has already delayed his retirement once.

"I'm hoping someone in government will deign to appoint some judges (to fill vacancies)," Kelley said.

Linebaugh has said York County's judges have been keeping up with the county's caseload but are getting tired.

Senior judges have been brought in to help alleviate the problem, Linebaugh has said. He has repeatedly approached York County's elected officials in Harrisburg to ask that appointments be made.

"All I can do is tell them we have this tremendous need," Linebaugh said earlier this year.

Making the news: Kelley made news in 2011 when former assistant public defender Janan Tallo, who had dated Kelley, was granted a protection from abuse order against him, alleging he broke her elbow during an argument at his York Township home.

The state attorney general's office determine no charges should be filed against Kelley, and he admitted no wrongdoing.

In January 2014, he was cited by York Area Regional Police for hitting a fire hydrant and failing to notify police. He paid fines totaling nearly $600.

During his tenure at the York County District Attorney's Office, Kelley rose to second in command under former District Attorney Stan Rebert.

He prosecuted three murder cases in which the death penalty was handed down — for murderers Kevin Dowling, Milton Montalvo and Noel Montalvo — and also was a lead prosecutor in the prosecutions of 1969 race-riots murderers.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at