WEST CHESTER — Edward Griffith, the straight-talking, down-to-earth, and pragmatic Common Pleas Court judge who held court in a historically accented courtroom and who coincidentally played a central role in a historical Chester County court case, died on Tuesday. He was 74.
Griffith, who was known by family, friends and the attorneys who appeared before him as “Rusty” owing to his red hair as a young man, had taken a leave of absence early this year to deal with health issues, and his death left an absence on the county bench.
“Judge Griffith will be greatly missed as a member of the Chester County Court of Common Pleas bench,” said President Judge John Hall on Wednesday in a statement on behalf of his colleagues. “He was an extremely hard worker and developed into an excellent trial judge. Even in his final days, while seriously ill, he devotedly worked with his staff to make necessary judicial decisions and keep his list of cases current. His decisions were rarely appealed and those that were, almost never reversed.”
While Griffith’s demeanor on the bench could be crisp and clipped, he was always polite and courteous to those who appeared before him, and outgoing and friendly to those he greeted in the hallways of the Justice Center.
“Beyond his unquestioned acumen as a lawyer and jurist, his easy-going, enjoyable personality quickly led to friendships with his colleagues,” said Hall. “His loss is significant, professionally and personally, to all of us.”
Griffith, a native of Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, who had a career as a civil attorney before being elected to serve as a trial judge in 2003, handled primarily civil cases during his tenure, presiding over a multitude of medical malpractice cases, real estate and construction disputes, municipal zoning matters and complex contractual matters, including the contested sale of two county hospitals in 2022.
He also oversaw an unusual dispute between the state liquor board, a Main Line attorney, and the Chester County Hospital over the disposition of hundreds of bottles of fine wine that had been confiscated. Ultimately, he ruled that the wine could not be given to the hospital and sold for its charitable use. The case, and his decision, was reported nationally under the headline, “Wine Aficionados Mourn as Pennsylvania Judge Approves Dumping.”
But Griffith may ultimately be known for a case he inherited from a series of county judges before him — the involuntary commitment proceedings for the infamous killer Richard Greist, whose fatal stabbing of his pregnant wife and unborn son in 1978 in northern Chester County and subsequent acquittal by reason of insanity made headlines across the globe.
After hearing annual requests for Greist’s continued placement at Norristown State Hospital for years, in August Griffith ordered Greist discharged with little restriction and allowed him to live in the community free of the constraints he had face for four decades. He determined that Greist, to whom he had given more leeway in off-grounds privileges over the years, no longer suffered from a mental illness that would make him a danger to the community.
In true fashion, Griffith’s monumental, and somewhat courageous, order — defying the requests of the Chester County District Attorney’s Office and flying in the face of public opinion against Greist’s release — was a simply stated one-page, four-paragraph document. It was reaffirmed this month by a fellow judge.
“Rusty was a very skilled civil litigator prior to coming to the bench and was very knowledgable,” said former county District Attorney and retired Judge Anthony Sarcione, who developed a close professional friendship with Griffith during their time in the courthouse together, despite their differences in legal background.
“He was a no-nonsense, solid judge,” Sarcione said Wednesday. “He could make a decision without hesitation, and more often than not, made the right one.” Sarcione said the two would frequently eat lunch together, sometimes in the unpretentious cafeteria of the county Justice Center, rubbing elbows with tipstaffs and court clerks, and talk about pro sports, colleges games, and the law.
“I used to pick his brain,” the younger Sarcione, who came on the county bench two years before Griffith. “He liked to talk about the law.” Griffith expressed admiration of attorneys who were well prepared when they came before him, and spoke of his fascination with the cases he heard. “I enjoyed just listening to him just taking about the cases in his courtroom.”
And what a courtroom it was. Unlike the other, more modern, cookie-cutter canned courtrooms in the Justice Center, Griffith’s Courtroom 11 on the 6th floor had a touch of the unique.
It was modeled, in a way, after the “old” Courtroom Three in the Historic 1893 Courthouse Annex on West Market Street, with a crafted wooden bench and hand-chiseled wooden name plates for judges that had served the county starting in the 17th century.
The bench had been rescued from abandonment by a county attorney during a remodeling in the 1960s, and appeared in a restaurant and bar across the street from the courtroom for years. It was rescued again in the 1980s and served as the bench for Judges Thomas Gavin and James P. MacElree II before being brought to the new courthouse when it opened in 2007. Griffith used it from day one.
Griffith was the son of the late Edward M. Griffith and Jane Randall Griffith Jones. He attended Wyoming Seminary Day School in Kingston, the Hill School in Pottstown, Lehigh University, and Dickinson School of Law, from which he graduated in 1973.
He began his law career as an associate at the law firm Duane, Morris & Heckscher in Philadelphia and moved to their Paoli office in 1978, eventually becoming a partner in 1981.
In 2003, he was elected judge and was retained by voters in 2013. He was scheduled to retire at the end of the year.
In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by son Trevor S. Griffith.
Surviving are his wife, Jessie Conyngham Griffith of West Chester; son Stewart R. “Beau” Griffith of West Chester; grand-son Benjamin S. Griffith; step-daughters Kristen A. Costello, Lauren A Cranston, Carolyn A. Dehne, Olivia A. Beauchaine; and 10 step-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be at the convenience of the family.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.