Inquirer editorial: Ex-Justice Eakin dodges accountability to the end

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin arrives for a hearing Dec. 21, 2015, at the Northampton County courthouse in Easton.

Pennsylvania's Court of Judicial Discipline noted last week that the profane and bigoted emails that finally forced state Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin to resign were marked by "arrogance and the belief that an individual is better than his or her peers." Ironically, the court pointed this out in the course of a ruling that allowed Eakin to escape a public accounting of his misdeeds and perhaps additional penalties at trial. The unmistakable impression is that Pennsylvania's entire judiciary suffers from an arrogance that prevents it from subjecting its own to the sort of unflinching judgment it imposes on others.

The case began with the Judicial Conduct Board's premature exoneration of Eakin - news of which was delivered by Eakin's friend Robert Graci, the conduct board's chief counsel - and ended with the same board pleading with the court to drop the most serious ethics charge against him, putting his $153,000-a-year pension out of harm's way. All this from the panel that is supposed to prosecute wayward judges, which raises a question: With prosecutions like this, who needs a defense?

A few days before the disciplinary court levied a $50,000 fine and declared the matter closed, the justice effectively accepted one of the stiffest penalties possible by removing himself from office. He had certainly earned as much, having sent emails that joked about spousal abuse and virtually leered at public employees while receiving a veritable anthology of other offensive messages without apparent objection. Exchanged on state computers and discovered in the course of an unrelated review by Attorney General Kathleen Kane's office, the emails rendered Eakin's credibility to judge others - on the state's highest court no less - forfeit.

Whether Eakin deserved further sanctions, particularly a loss of retirement benefits, is a harder question. A trial is just the way to resolve such questions. So it's disappointing that the disciplinary court, particularly after one of its judges showed an encouraging grasp of the need for a public process, gave in to the system's unhealthy proclivity for backroom bargains. Less than two years ago, the Supreme Court itself saw to a similarly quiet exit for a more prolific porn-mail participant, Seamus P. McCaffery.

In addition to preemptively sparing the former justices further penalties, the settlements leave important questions unresolved. For example, did lurid communications with attorneys compromise the judges? And once they were revealed, why did the disciplinary system so repeatedly and insistently fail to do its job?

Eakin's is the high court's third resignation in disgrace in as many years. Indeed, at the current rate of about one humiliated justice a year, the court would seem to require an accelerated election schedule just to maintain a full complement. Better yet, the legislature should do away with the expensive partisan elections that produced this bunch and institute merit-based appointments. And as former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis argued in an Inquirer op-ed last week, Gov. Wolf should use a pilot merit selection process to choose Eakin's interim replacement.

In the meantime, the remaining justices, with yet another embarrassment behind them, should take the opportunity to ensure that the disciplinary system is willing and able to handle the next scandal. Judging by recent history, they don't have much time.

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