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Schuylkill County News

Burke, O’Pake Battle for Spot as Judge on Court of Common Pleas Bench

A Q&A with the candidates

While we’ve focused much of our attention on the hotly-contested race for Schuylkill County Commissioner in this election cycle. But much of the money is going toward the other big race on your ballot on Tuesday.

That’s the one for Judge of the Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas. There are 2 candidates running for just 1 spot, Republican Bill Burke and Democrat Mike O’Pake.

O’Pake is currently serving as Schuylkill County District Attorney.

In the Spring Primary, each candidate cross-filed and won their respective party’s nomination, setting up this showdown in the General Election.

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Coal Region Canary sent each of the candidates 5 questions that help them explain their platforms and background and why they believe they’re worthy of your vote this Fall.

We told each candidate to limit their responses to 2 paragraphs.

Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas Judge – Q&A with the Candidates

Q: What personal aspirations led you to pursue a career in the field of law? 

Bill Burke: I initially aspired to the practice of law by witnessing my late father, Attorney Stanley J. Burke, practice law in the community.  My father conducted a general practice of law that included assisting injured and disadvantaged individuals obtain assistance in the form of black lung benefits, worker’s compensation, and social security disability.  

My father further represented individuals purchasing real estate, settling estates, and serving as a borough solicitor.  I often would enter my house to find my father consulting with a client in our living room or dining room table.  Because of this positive impact on the local community, I then decided to engage in the general practice of law seeking similar positive impact upon people.

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Mike O’Pake: From the time that I was a young child, I enjoyed reading. I would read about sports, history and United States Presidents. Eventually, I started reading about the law, the Constitution, and checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. I became intrigued by the law. I felt that the field of law would provide me with a challenging and satisfying career. I also knew that it would take a great deal of hard work to achieve that goal.

My father was a meat cutter for Acme Markets and my Mother was a waitress. They instilled in me the values of hard work, treating people with respect, fairness, dignity, and honesty. Those traits and values have served me well in the private practice of law, my twenty-seven (27) years of prosecutorial experience and my last six (6) years as the District Attorney of Schuylkill County. The practice of law is a great way to help people solve their problems and I have always viewed myself as a person that can solve problems. I always wanted to help people and challenge myself. The practice of law has afforded me an opportunity to solve problems, help victims and challenge myself every day.

Q: What work background do you have that applies to the level of experience needed to be a Schuylkill County judge?

Burke: I have practiced law in all disciplines such as criminal, civil, and municipal law.  A Judge of the Court of Common Pleas must possess familiarity in all disciplines of law similar to that of a general practitioner.   I routinely appear before a Magisterial District Judge and/or Judge of the Court of Common Pleas on average three to four times a week.  

My background and frequent court appearances would well serve the Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas due to these regular court appearances and familiarity with the administration of courts.  My practice background as Public Defender, attorney for the Office of Senior Services, and municipal solicitor would provide the necessary experience for success as a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas.

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O’Pake: My work background and experience are unmatched and make me uniquely qualified to serve as a Judge. I am currently in my second term as the elected District Attorney, and I served as an Assistant District Attorney for 21 years prior to my election. I personally have tried more than 125 criminal jury trials. I am the ONLY candidate that has successfully prosecuted a First Degree Murderer and assisted in the conviction of a death penalty case. I have been a proactive District Attorney by helping to restructure the criminal justice system in Schuylkill County so that cases are now resolved in half the time as they were in prior administrations. This brings swift justice and closure for victims and prompt punishment for criminals. I convened an Opioid Summit to combat the opioid crisis. I took $1 Million in drugs off the streets in the single largest drug bust in Schuylkill County history and I have taken over $500,000 in cash off drug dealers and used it to fight the war on drugs.

I have far more experience inside a courtroom than any other candidate in this race. However, my experience outside the courtroom is also unmatched. During my time in private practice, I represented approximately 12 school districts, municipalities, municipal authorities and zoning hearing boards. I have tried civil cases where millions of dollars were at stake. I have vast experience in wills, trust and estates, personal injury matters, real estate, corporate, zoning, commercial, family law and divorce matters and real estate tax assessment appeals. I have experience in every area of the law that may come before me as a Court of Common Pleas Judge.

Q: What character qualities would you bring to the bench?

Burke: I would bring the character qualities of strong work ethic, devoted family man, and broad experience in the law.  I additionally bring the qualities of a person who has served the public in various capacities throughout his career as an individual who has constantly and consistently interacted with the general public involving a vast array of legal issues.

O’Pake: I would bring to the Bench the same character qualities I possess as the District Attorney. I have a reputation as District Attorney as being fair, reasonable, consistent and tough on crime. I will be impartial in my decision-making process, and I will uphold the rule of law and base my decisions on the facts of the case. I will not be influenced by outside sources or politics. I am a public servant, honored and humbled to serve the people not the politics. I will provide everyone with a full and fair opportunity to present their case and I will treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve. I have the judicial temperament and patience necessary to serve as a Judge. As District Attorney, I make decisions every day that affect the lives of victims and their families. I have the compassion, empathy, knowledge, ability, and temperament to continue to make those decisions as a Judge.

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Both of you are deeply invested in careers and lives in Schuylkill County. Why is that important for a judge?

Burke: Other than obtaining my college and law school degrees, I have resided my entire life in Schuylkill County.  A person seeking to serve as Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Schuylkill County should possess a vested interest in serving all his fellow citizens in the community for which he or she resides.  

My family has resided in Schuylkill County for several generations, and this devotion to Schuylkill County obviously involves a degree of committed service for improving the community at large.

O’Pake: It is extremely important for a Judge to have a vested interest in the community in which they serve. I was born and raised in Schuylkill County, and I chose to raise my family in Schuylkill County and devote my career as a public servant to the residents of Schuylkill County. Our County has a reputation of being hard-working, fun-loving individuals devoted to family and each other. It is important for me as a Judge to preserve the values instilled in me as a young child and carried with me throughout my career, and as a husband and father. The decisions made by a Judge will influence the community in which the Judge resides. A Judge should ensure that his or her community is a safe place to live, work, play and raise a family. Having a finger on the pulse of the community is essential for that to occur.

Much of the population of Schuylkill County will never have occasion to appear as a Defendant in your courtroom for those (law abiding) citizens, why should they choose to vote for you?

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Burke: I would submit that my candidacy is based on a responsibility to serving the public as opposed to self-service.  I have traveled all corners of Schuylkill County during the course of my campaign with my wife Lori, my son Billy, and my daughter Anna.  

Our family dedication to this campaign clearly demonstrates our commitment to community betterment.  This campaign has further educated myself in interacting with my fellow citizens as to how I can best serve the community.

O’Pake: Although most Schuylkill County residents will not appear before me as a Defendant, there are many individuals that may appear before me in civil, family law or other matters. For all residents of Schuylkill County, I urge you to choose me as your next Judge because I have more courtroom experience than my opponent and the breadth of knowledge in all areas of the law that may come before me is unmatched by my opponent. In addition, my peers in the Schuylkill County Bar Association provided me with the mostly highly recommended votes for this position over my opponent by a 2 to 1 margin. Also, twenty-three (23%) percent of the attorneys that voted in the Bar Association Poll voted to NOT RECOMMEND my opponent for this position. Attorneys are in Court with Judges every day. They know best who will make a good Judge and who will not. Their votes make it clear who will be the better Judge. I am more qualified for this position.

I have also been endorsed by the Pennsylvania State Police, the Schuylkill County Chiefs of Police Association, and the Fraternal Order of Police North Schuylkill Lodge #25. These Law Enforcement Officers are also in Court on a routine basis and are knowledgeable about the necessary traits and characteristics a good Judge should possess. They believe I am the best choice for this position. I have spoken at almost every School District in Schuylkill County warning High School and Middle School students about the dangers of social media, sexting, vaping, drugs, and making fake bomb threats. I have spoken to numerous senior citizen groups about remaining vigilant in the protection of their personal information in order to avoid falling prey to scams against the elderly. I care about our community and keeping it safe. I will continue to serve the people, not the politics.

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