Pa.'s judges reeling from the latest humiliation

1200 pa supreme court justices
(From left) Pa. Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin, Chief Justice Ron Castille and Justice Seamus P. McCaffery at McCaffery's swearing-in in 2008.

Will the shocks, humiliations and embarrassments that have been plaguing the Pennsylvania judicial system for decades ever come to an end?

Scandal has become an enduring theme of the Pennsylvania judiciary. On Tuesday, in the latest embarrassment, state Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin resigned rather than face a trial before the state Court of Judicial Discipline on charges he breached ethics rules by exchanging emails containing racist and misogynistic content among a small group of lawyers and golfing companions.

That followed the early retirement in 2014 of yet another Supreme Court justice, Seamus McCaffery, after it was disclosed that he sent hundreds of pornographic emails, many of them to lawyers in the state Attorney General's office, and that his wife had received case referral fees from personal injury lawyers.

Two years before that, Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin was suspended from office following her arrest on charges she used state employees and resources in her campaign to win a seat on the court. She was later convicted and resigned.

And in yet another stain on the system, two state court judges in Luzerne County were charged in 2009 with sentencing juveniles to a for-profit prison in which they had hidden financial interests, the so-called Kids for Cash scandal, and both eventually went to jail.

Hundreds of juvenile sentences that had been handed down in their courts were vacated.

Yet for all of the reputational damage to the state judicial system in recent years, court observers say there are signs that the ethical climate may be slowly improving.

Chief among the reasons is last year's Supreme Court election, in which three new justices were elected, the most turnover on the court since the 1700s, said Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz.

The election, in which candidates and outside interest groups spent $16 million, was the most expensive state judicial election in U.S. history. That spending itself raised questions anew about the propriety of special interests with matters before the court funding judicial elections.

Yet so salient was the issue of court reform, Ledewitz said, that both Republicans and Democrats focused on it during the campaign.

"I think any of the candidates who ran last year would have enormously improved the reputation of the court," Ledewitz said. "And I am not talking about the fact that we elected three Democrats."

Relentless media coverage of the scandals also has had a positive impact, says Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a judicial reform group.

Judges now are on notice that ethical breaches such as the sending and receiving of offensive emails could cost them their careers. Marks said she expects that state court judges will be exceedingly careful about the emails they send and receive after Eakin was forced from the bench.

"People who want to defend the current system are having more and more trouble doing so," Marks said.

In February, concern over the court system's reputation even prompted three former governors, Republicans Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker, and Democrat Ed Rendell, to hold a news conference urging the legislature to pass a measure that would end partisan elections of judges to the state's three appellate level courts.

"Tell me about scandals involving federal judges compared to state judges here in Pennsylvania," Rendell said, noting that federal judges are appointed, not elected. "It's almost nonexistent."

Marks and Ledewitz say that the Eakins scandal points to the need for more transparency in appointments made by the court to administrative boards such as the Judicial Conduct Board, which investigates allegations of misconduct by judges. That appointment process now occurs behind closed doors.

Exhibit A in their call for more scrutiny: After the Judicial Conduct Board cleared Eakin initially in 2014 of improper conduct in the email exchanges, the Daily News reported that the board's chief counsel, Robert Graci, was an old friend of Eakin's who had worked on his 2011 retention election. The board reopened its investigation late last year, after the release of new emails, and charged Eakin with various ethics violations. Graci has since recused himself from involvement in the Eakin case.

Ledewitz said that one of the bright spots at the court in recent years has been the quality of its decision making. Its decision giving municipal governments some say in fracking operations, as well as opinions on voter identification laws and local tax assessment procedures, reflect high-quality legal scholarship and have drawn interest from legal scholars around the nation, he said.

"The work product of this court in the past few years has been as high as it has been in all the time I have been watching the court, and that is 30 years," Ledewitz said.