Saturday, August 29, 2015

Better judgment

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas M. Nocella should be removed from the bench if a disciplinary court concurs with charges lodged against him this week.

Better judgment

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Judge Thomas M. Nocella . His lawyer predicted the case would be resolved "in a reasonable fashion" and hoped he would keep his job.
Judge Thomas M. Nocella . His lawyer predicted the case would be resolved "in a reasonable fashion" and hoped he would keep his job.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas M. Nocella should be removed from the bench if a disciplinary court concurs with charges lodged against him this week.

Even with reports that Nocella is well-regarded in his Family Court post, the essence of the charges filed Tuesday by the state Judicial Conduct Board is that he lied to get himself elected last year by failing to disclose numerous legal problems.

As the court-reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts notes, litigants can hardly have much confidence in such a judge — even one said by his attorney to be regarded as “extremely professional.”

Nocella will get a chance to contest the claims, and his counsel, Samuel C. Stretton, predicts that the case will be resolved short of the judge’s removal.

Yet, the controversy surrounding the judge — as with too many others tripped up by misconduct claims — offers further evidence of deep flaws in the state’s system of picking all of its judges through contested elections.

Indeed, the Nocella allegations seemingly expose problems with how judicial candidates in Philadelphia, in particular, are vetted by Democratic Party leaders, the legal community, and voters themselves.

Central to the charges is the claim that Nocella misled the Philadelphia Bar Association panel that issues ratings of “recommended” or “not recommended” for candidates.

Following Nocella’s late entry as a party nominee last fall, the bar found him qualified. While the Judicial Conduct Board lays the blame on the candidate, it’s good that bar association officials plan to redouble efforts to scrutinize candidates as they perform this time-consuming but critically important public service.

Similarly, Democratic officials over the years have placed too high a value on party loyalty when assembling judicial slates. They, too, need to screen candidates’ resumes more closely.

For their part, voters may be in the weakest position to decipher among judicial candidates. Time and again, candidates with the best ballot position win — regardless of whether they match up well on qualifications or their suitability to serve on the bench.

Certainly, more sure-footed vetting of judicial candidates would help. But switching to merit-based selection of more judges — as Gov. Corbett and court reform groups favor for state appellate courts — could mean fewer whoops moments for the Pennsylvania courts.

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