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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Reported Under FBI Investigation

Justice Seamus P. McCaffery of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is under FBI investigation, a Philadelphia Inquirer article said. At issue is the payment of  referral fees to his wife, Lise Rapaport, who has been his chief aide for “most of the past 16 years,” the newspaper said.

She made referrals to personal-injury firms, the Inquirer reported. Separately, it said a federal investigation of the Municipal Court in Philadelphia is in progress.

A lawyer for Rapaport and for Justice McCaffery labeled as “complete nonsense” the idea that there was a federal investigation and said Justice McCaffery has not done anything that was improper.

Ex-Justice Joan Orie Melvin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently was sentenced to three consecutive one-year terms of house arrest. She was convicted of corruption in the conduct of her two campaigns for the high court (see Gavel Grab).

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Suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Resigns

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin submitted her resignation on Monday. The justice, who was suspended earlier from the court, was convicted by a jury last month of public corruption charges arising from two Supreme Court campaigns.

Justice Melvin said she intends to pursue an appeal of her conviction. “In the meantime, however, the citizens of Pennsylvania deserve a fully-staffed Supreme Court,” she wrote in  her resignation letter, according to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article.

She was facing possible impeachment proceedings in the Pennsylvania House. Her resignation is to become effective May 1.

Following her conviction, calls have risen for Pennsylvania to switch from partisan elections to an appointive selection system for choosing judges. To learn about four former governors endorsing the appointive path, see Gavel Grab.

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‘Sea Change’ Possible on Pennsylvania Supreme Court?

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who will turn 70 next year, will seek retention election despite a rule requiring retirement at that age. The rule is facing a challenge in court.

A Philadelphia Inquirer article about Justice Castille’s plans went further to frame them in a context of possible sweeping change for the court. As many as six of its seven justices could depart within eight years if the retirement age is not changed and if a suspended justice who faces criminal charges, Joan Orie Melvin, is removed.

“It would be a real sea change,” said Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a JAS partner group.

While organized opposition to Justice Castille is not expected, he is concerned that he might have to put time into campaign fundraising for the first time, given the increased politicization of high court elections.

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Weighs Voter ID Law

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court heard vigorous oral arguments on Thursday over the constitutionality of a controversial state law requiring voter identification at the polls.

State courts have become a hot new battleground for foes of voter-identification laws, and given the stakes in a presidential election year, the oral arguments in Pennsylvania drew national media attention.

“The outcome of Thursday’s hearing could have significant consequences to the November elections as opponents of the law argue that it disproportionately affects racial minorities and other groups that favor president Obama,” CBS News reported.

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How Much Will It Cost Me If I Want To Sit on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court?

The numbers are in and, as expected, Pennsylvania has broken its own fundraising records. Four candidates – Democrats Seamus McCaffery and Debra Todd and Republicans Mike Krancer and Maureen Lally-Green — for two open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court raised a combined total of $6,670,538. Each candidate raised well over one million dollars for the contests, which were held this November.

In-Kind Total

Total

McCaffery

$72,574.75

$2,321,690.25

Todd

$3,401.93

$1,464,943.61

Lally-Green

$499,473.14

$1,774,414.65

Krancer

$398,192.21

$2,108,507.21

TOTAL =

$7,669,555.72

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Ex-Supreme Court Justice Submits Appeal in Pennsylvania

Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, convicted of public corruption counts in her campaigns for the high court, contends in an appeal that the trial judge in her case was biased against her.

“Through his words and actions, the trial court regularly and repeatedly communicated to the jury his belief that the charges against Orie Melvin had substantial merit and that her defense was not worthy of credence,” said her appeal brief filed with the Pennsylvania Superior Court, according to The Associated Press.

Orie Melvin was sentenced to three years in house arrest and a $55,000 fine.

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Column: Pennsylvania’s Highest Court in a ‘Supreme Mess’

Short one justice and with another who may have to retire due to age restrictions, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is in a sticky situation, according to a Philadelphia Daily News column by John Baer.

Seven justices typically sit on the bench, but Justice Joan Orie Melvin was suspended last May, leaving only six to decide cases. Melvin resigned from the court this wek after being convicted earlier this year on public corruption charges (see Gavel Grab).

If the justices decide any case on a three-three vote, the decision is “meaningless,” and the lower court decision would stand, Baer says.

Chief Justice Ron Castille is currently 69 years old, and may have to step down soon since Pennsylvania’s constitution decrees that “judges retire at 70.” The requirement is currently being challenged in court. Read more

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JAS Cited in Article on New Judicial Recusal Rule in Pennsylvania

A new recusal rule for Pennsylvania judges who hear cases involving campaign contributors (see Gavel Grab) will take effect in July, an Allentown Morning Call article reports. In providing context for the rule, the article cites Justice at Stake and two of its partner organizations.

According to a poll commissioned last year by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, almost 90 percent of voters think judges’ decisions are  influenced to at least some extent by campaign donations, and more than 90 percent said judges should step aside when a party in a case before them has contributed directly or indirectly to a judge’s election campaign.

As Matthew Menendez of the Brennan Center put it, “Imagine that, God forbid, you get hit by a car and you’re badly hurt, and it turns out the driver is the biggest campaign contributor to the judge on that case.” He added, “Everyone should have confidence that they can receive a fair shake in court.” Read more

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JAS, Partner Group Commend New Recusal Rule in Pennsylvania

Justice at Stake and one of its partner organizations, the Brennan Center for Justice, have written Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille to applaud revisions in the newly adopted State Code of Judicial Conduct. Their letter focused on a new recusal rule for judges who hear cases involving campaign contributors.

The new canons say judges must step aside from cases involving campaign support — whether direct or independent – that would “raise a reasonable concern about the fairness or impartiality of the judge’s consideration of a case.” The rule says,  “In doing so, the judge should consider the public perception regarding such contributions and their effect on the judge’s ability to be fair and impartial.”

“More than ever, the public needs to be reassured that special interests cannot buy favorable treatment from the courts,” Matt Berg, deputy JAS director of state affairs, and Matthew Menendez, counsel at the Brennan Center, wrote in the letter. ”By strengthening its recusal rules, Pennsylvania’s court system has sent a powerful and positive message that its courts cannot be bought.”

 

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Revised Pennsylvania Ethics Code Includes Judicial Recusal Rule

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has adopted revisions to the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct, dealing with various ethics issues including recusal, and nepotism and also banning judges’ serving on corporate boards. It was the first revision in more than 20 years, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported.

Regarding recusal, the new canons say judges must step aside from cases involving campaign donors whose contributions were of a sum that would “raise a reasonable concern” of partiality, according to The Morning Call. “In doing so,” the rule says, “the judge should consider the public perception regarding such contributions and their effect on the judge’s ability to be fair and impartial.”

The prior Code of Judicial Conduct did not appear to deal with judicial campaign contributions at all.

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