Karen Heller: The latest high-court fiasco

Powerful, plugged-in lawyers are hired to probe powerful, plugged-in lawyers.

Every few years or so, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court erupts in a fresh installment of All My Judges.

In 1994, Justice Rolf Larsen was convicted on felony conspiracy charges after acquiring Valium through scripts written for his employees.

In 2006, after ruling that the legislature's predawn pay raise was unconstitutional, the justices reinstated the increase for the state system's thousand judges, including, it so happens, themselves.

In a case of Do as I say, not as I do, the court determined the state's constitution bans salary cuts for the judiciary.

Which brings us to the Family Court Debacle of 2010. The plan was to construct a consolidated, 14-story building at 15th and Arch. How much of the state's $12 million has been squandered on highly paid, politically connected lawyers? It remains to be seen.

Especially since a parade of highly paid, politically connected lawyers keeps getting hired to investigate the money trail.

At all times, remember that this is your money.

Begin with power lawyer Jeffrey Rotwitt. The court paid his firm, which paid him, to be its representative. Then the court paid developer Donald Pulver, who paid Rotwitt, his partner. Nice work if you can get it, but you can't unless you know the right people.

Rotwitt was fired from his firm, Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell, & Hippel L.L.P., after The Inquirer uncovered his development deal. He insists he did nothing wrong, that many people were aware of the arrangement.

Which suggests that working both sides is the way business is done in this town.

Rotwitt was hired for the Family Court project in 2006 by then-Justice Sandra Schultz Newman, who began dating Rotwitt's partner and Obermayer chairman Martin Weinberg five months later. They were married - and their union annulled - the following year.

With all these high-powered connections, it's easy to forget how important Family Court is to people without power or means. The court serves the city's neediest citizens, children at risk, victims of neglect, abused women. To spend time in Juvenile Court, at 1801 Vine, is to witness a vast catalog of misery and hurt, children drowning in trouble, and dedicated professionals trying to help.

The Domestic Relations Division's courtrooms, at 34 S. 11th, are so cramped that "people are sitting right near someone who has abused them. The rooms are too small for support people from agencies," said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. "People who come into contact with the courts deserve some privacy, safety, and some dignity. They're not getting any of those in the two current buildings."

The amazing race was on to start construction on the new $200 million Family Court this summer while Philadelphian Ed Rendell was still governor. The fear, not without merit, is that state funding will evaporate once Rendell is no longer in Harrisburg.

Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille is a busy man.

He serves as the top administrator of the state's massive court system and adjudicates complex cases as well. Why was he engaged in a complex real estate deal?

"You know . . . Chief Justice [of the United States] John Roberts doesn't make real estate deals," said Duquesne Law professor Bruce Ledewitz, a frequent court critic.

Philadelphia can be a very small town, and not always in a good way. The first lawyer Castille hired to investigate Rotwitt's double-dipping was Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. of Ballard Spahr. Ballard had already received almost half a million dollars to work on the government-relations aspect of Family Court, led by John Estey, Rendell's former chief of staff. Ballard, you may recall, paid Rendell almost half a million while he was running for governor. "I can't lie about it," he said prior to his election. "My office is like a museum over there."

The next lawyer the chief justice hired to clean up the mess, William G. Chadwick, served as Castille's top deputy when Castille was Philadelphia district attorney. Last year, Castille hired Chadwick for a $150,000 no-bid consulting contract to review the Philadelphia court system. Doesn't Castille know any other lawyers?

How small is the world of Pennsylvania's Supreme Court? In 2007, when Ledewitz called the high court "even more corrupt than the legislature," Castille - a retired Marine and Vietnam War hero who you'd think would have tougher skin - wanted the court's disciplinary board to rebuke the law professor for his comments. At the time, the disciplinary board was chaired by Newman's son Jonathan, then "of counsel" at Obermayer.

Now, the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the Family Court development deal. Last week, Chester County Rep. Curt Schroder, a Republican like Castille, called for yet another investigation. He wants the auditor general or an independent commission to scrutinize the "fiasco" overseen by Castille.

Get out your calculator. That's federal and possibly additional state money to investigate the misuse of state funds that have a slim chance of being returned.

Castille's "a crackerjack legal thinker," said Ledewitz, his frequent scold, "but he's not really paying full attention."

Castille is a big man in the courts. It's his circle of trusted advisers that got small.

If he didn't know Rotwitt was a codeveloper, Castille should have. Ignorance of the deal excuses no one, especially the state's chief justice.

"We're building a courthouse that should be a symbol of justice and fidelity to the law," said Marks, the advocate for court reform. "The ultimate tragedy would be if this project was put on hold or never happens."


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.