Will there be justice for animals in Judge Brown's Lancaster County courtroom?
Animal welfare advocates wonder whether newly-elected county judge Leonard Brown III can separate his new role - balancing the scales of justice - with his old role as a partner in a firm that specializes in representing accused (and convicted) animal abusers.
Brown, a Republican who ran unopposed in the November election, takes office next month as one of more than a dozen judges who sit on the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas.
During the course of his tenure on the court - which will be at least 10 years and could be much longer if voters choose to allow him to retain his seat - there is a very good chance that animal abuse cases will land on his docket.
After all, Lancaster County has the largest concentration of dog kennels in the state and an unusually large equine population because of the number of Amish residing there.
How will Brown handle cases involving cruelty to animals?
Should he recuse himself given his law firm's active defense of high profile animal abusers?
Over the past several years, as enforcement actions by the state and local humane agencies against commercial kennels increased under the new state dog law, Brown's his firm, Clymer, Musser, Brown and Conrad developed a new niche practice: defending animal abusers at all levels of criminal court and suing humane agencies and activist groups in federal court on constitutional grounds.
The firm has a website http://www.justice4pa.com/Criminal-Defense/Dog-Law.shtml with a page dedicated to its defense of individuals charged by the Pennsylvania SPCA and the state Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, which the firm says "often work to overstep their enumerated powers and trample the rights of private citizens." The website states:
No one wants to see an animal neglected or treated cruelly. But in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, animal rights activists are now twisting the animal cruelty laws and dog laws to mistreat innocent citizens. In Pennsylvania, the prosecution and court of public opinion often view animal cruelty as an indicator of future violent behavior against fellow humans. Therefore, the state vigorously pursues dog law violation cases. Unfortunately, people are often falsely accused of committing these crimes.
On Thursday, Brown's firm lost its appeal of one of the most high profile animal abuse cases in the state. The state Superior Court upheld a Lehigh County Court judge's ruling in an animal cruelty case involving Derbe Eckhart, former operator of Almost Heaven kennel, once one of the most notorious puppy mill operators in the state.
The Superior Court found that animal cruelty charges filed against Eckhart - who served a 9 1/2 month prison term on the charges - were appropriate despite arguments to the contrary by Eckhart's defense attorney, Jeff Conrad, according to the Morning Call of Allentown.
Brown himself is representing former Lancaster dog breeder Nathan Myer and five others in a suit filed in Lancaster County Court against the PSPCA, Main Line Animal Rescue which purchased sick dogs sold by the breeders at an Ohio auction in 2009. Brown initially filed the constitutional rights case in federal court where it was dismissed. He then filed the suit in Lancaster court and it will likely still be active when Brown is sworn in there next month.
Brown's firm has also represented convicted animal abuser, John Blank of Cochranville (the former operator of Limestone Kennel), in a federal civil rights case that was thrown out.
One hundred miles west of Chester County, Brown's firm is representing a Franklin County couple with a history of animal abuse.
The case involves five huskies removed from the home of Ralph and Susan Fries in April 2010. A month earlier, the couple was convicted of animal abuse stemming from the condition of 80 farm animals.
The Fries' were found guilty of abuse in the case of the huskies by a district judge in a case later upheld by the county court. Attorney Jeff Conrad is appealing the charges to Superior Court and the four surviving dogs remain in the custody of the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter. Because the Fries' have refused to relinquish the dogs they have been living in the shelter for 20 months, costing the nonprofit facility tens of thousands for their care.
Conrad told the Public Opinion of Chambersburg that he was concerned Franklin County judges were being influenced by "animal rights wackos."
Clymer, Musser, Brown & Conrad also represented Holly Crawford in the "Gothic kitten" case which got national attention. In a case that was upheld by the Superior Court, Crawford, of Sweet Valley, Pa., was convicted of animal cruelty for piercing kittens' ears and necks and docking their tails and trying to sell them on eBay.
Brown's firm also is representing Philadelphia Bassett hound breeder Wendy Willard in her federal suit against the Pennsylvania SPCA claiming her constitutional rights were violated when law enforcement officials entered her property and removed 11 dogs (she was keeping 23 dogs and the limit is 12). Cruelty charges against Willard were dropped after she agreed to clean her kennel and keep no more dogs on the property than the city ordinance allowed.
Animal welfare advocates say Brown should recuse himself from all cases involving animal abuse that come before him in Lancaster County Court.
"Absolutely I think it's an issue," said Jackie Keeney of United Against Puppy Mills, a Lancaster-based anti-puppy mill advocacy group. "It's definitely a conflict of interest."
A message left on Brown's voice mail machine at his Lancaster office was not returned.