Justice Michael Eakin has become the second member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to resign amid a recent pornographic email scandal, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Eakin faced ethics charges. He had been suspended and had issued a public apology.
Eakin was to face a trial before a judicial ethics court later in March; Pennlive.com said it was uncertain whether his resignation would bring that case to an end. Additional coverage came from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Associated Press.
Pennsylvania elects its Supreme Court justices, in a system that last year delivered the most costly state supreme court election in national history and that has widely been associated with scandal in the Keystone State. The legislature is weighing a proposal to shift to a merit-based appointive system, supported jointly by the state’s current governor and all living past governors in a recent bipartisan statement. Editorial boards have seized on scandal to voice support for merit selection, and the latest resignation is likely to kindle more calls for reform.
The Associated Press reports that Philadelphia Judge Kevin Dougherty has become the newest member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Dougherty was the top vote-getter in an election that saw the highest amount of spending in a state supreme court race in U.S history.
Later this week the other two new justices, David Wecht and Christine Donohue, will be sworn in separately in Pittsburgh. The court will then have five Democrats, one Republican on active duty and one Republican under paid suspension. Read more
A high-stakes election for three seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, coming at the same time a sitting justice appears involved in an email scandal, is getting daily news media attention.
“Three open seats, history, on Pa. Supreme Court,” reported ABC27 News. “Wrongdoing plus retirement equals history for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” it said about the three vacancies.
A WITF5 headline stated, “High court candidates not above dark money.” Meanwhile a Philly.com editorial called for an independent investigation of what it called an “apparently bottomless digital landfill of pornographic and bigoted email traded among judges and prosecutors.”
Elections for an unprecedented three open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court were expected to be contentious this year, but the possible entry of a seventh candidate into what is now a six-person race could make them even hotter, the Philadelphia Inquirer says.
Paul Panepinto, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge, recently quit the Republican Party and registered as an Independent; he is collecting petition signatures in order to run in the Supreme Court general election, according to the newspaper.
Already, “A storm of special interest and partisan advertising is on the horizon from outside groups not connected to the candidates,” the newspaper reports. To learn about how much was spent before three Republican and three Democratic candidates won nomination in a primary earlier this year, see Gavel Grab.
“I think the gloves may be off,” Justice at Stake Deputy Executive Director Liz Seaton told the Philadelphia Inquirer for its article about high outside spending expected to flow into Pennsylvania’s upcoming elections for three open seats on the state Supreme Court.
The article relies on data collected by Justice at Stake and partner organizations to illustrate a huge increase in independent spending in state high court races, and it also quotes former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille about the impact on a judge’s thinking of mega-campaign donations. “These people gave me a million dollars,” he said. “I mean, wow, how do you get that out of your mind?”
As Pennsylvania gears up for the high court elections this fall, the article offers almost a primer about issues involved with big-spending judicial elections and outside money; it talks about nasty TV ads that have run in some states, their impact on qualified judicial candidates seeking office, and their impact on judicial outcomes. Read more
BULLETIN: Judge Thomas Kistler announced on Monday he was withdrawing his name from consideration for a Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacancy, according to the Centre Daily Times. He alluded to circumstances that have newly altered the legal system in Centre County.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s state Supreme Court nominees, Duquesne University School of Law Dean Ken Gormley and Centre County President Judge Thomas Kistler, are facing a swirl of controversy.
News accounts said Judge Kistler was getting scrutiny over an email that he apparently forwarded with what critics questioned as a racially insensitive email. According to Pennlive.com, “An image in the email, bearing the message ‘Merry Christmas from the Johnsons,’ showed an African-American couple hugging for the camera in a prison visitation scene.”
Gormley was facing questions involving a lawsuit filed against him and the university by a female law professor, which was settled, and its terms were not disclosed. News coverage about the nominees’ possible troubles appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Tribune-Review, The Patriot-News and The Centre Daily Times. Judge Kistler Read more
Change is on the docket for Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court in 2015, as voters decide who will fill the three seats in question, and possibly raise the mandatory retirement age for judges.
After three judges retired last year – two in scandal and one as a retiree – then Governor Corbett nominated Justice Correale Stevens to fill one of the seats. The two others are still empty, but the Allentown Morning Call reports that Governor Wolf plans to fill the other two with interim judges soon. The wisdom of appointing two judges to the bench is being debated throughout the state, because his nominees would likely only serve until after the November election. Patriot News reports that although The Court would welcome any temporary colleagues, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor said they are “perfectly capable of operating with five justices for a one-year period.
An American Law Journal feature on “The Cost of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Scandal and Judges Behaving Badly” includes interviews of guests including Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner group.
“The porn emails got the headlines,” says Marks, referring to the latest scandal (see Gavel Grab), “but that was just the tip of the iceberg.” PMC is advocating for a switch from judicial elections to merit selection of judges in Pennsylvania. A Legal Intelligencer article about the show is available through Google.
Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin has dropped her appeal and has begun serving her sentence, according to an article by the Associated Press. Her sentence on public corruption charges includes sending apology letters to other state judges and three years of house arrest. (For more background see Gavel Grab.)
Melvin has submitted drafted apology letters, but has been met with contention by District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. “[A]ttempting to deflect blame for her actions to members of her staff can hardly be considered an apology,” Zappala said. His concerns deal with a specific paragraph in Melvin’s draft that reads, “In reflection, I wish I had been more diligent in my supervision of my staff and that I had given them more careful instructions with respect to the prohibition on political activity.” Zappala has forwarded his comments to the sentencing judge, but no response has been received.
Melvin was convicted of using her judicial staffers, who are paid with taxpayer money, for her own state Supreme Court campaigns. This scandal involving the court has been quickly followed by another which resulted in the resignation of Justice Seamus McCaffery, leading some to question the process of electing judges.
The sudden retirement this week of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, who was dragged down by a pornographic email scandal, and the upcoming age-required retirement of Chief Justice Ronald Castille will create two openings on the court to be filled temporarily by gubernatorial appointment.
All told, three open seats on the seven-member court will be up for election next year and a “stampede” of high court candidates is expected to run, the Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, Justice McCaffery’s retirement may leave the state Supreme Court without a tie-breaking vote for the rest of 2014.
There have been numerous calls for a switch to merit selection of top judges in the wake of the recent scandal (see Gavel Grab). In one of the latest, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial declared, “Where’s the merit? Another bad justice leaves the state’s top court/And it’s time to say good riddance to the system of electing judges in Pennsylvania.”