Court of jesters in Pennsylvania

    Funny how a conversation can stick with you for 20 years.

    It was 1994, and I was in Harrisburg covering the impeachment trial of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen. During a lunch break, I was having a sandwich with Bill Moushey, the terrific Pittsburgh Post Gazette reporter who’d broken a raft of stories about Larsen, a man whose saga is every bit as crazy and contentious as the recent court scandals. (He actually accused another justice of trying to run him over in a car.)

    Moushey was saying he didn’t much care for doing these stories about court shenanigans. When I asked why, he said, ” I just don’t really like covering politicians.”

    It struck me as an odd expression at the time, but I get it now. Here in Pennsylvania, our judges are politicians in robes.

    The events of the past week in the state’s highest court are truly jaw-dropping. The chief justice puts out a statement detailing 234 pornographic emails another justice sent out, noting they included hundreds of sexually explicit images and dozens of videos.

    The accused justice admits a “lapse in judgment” and apologizes, but says the chief is out to get him. Then a third justice says the accused porno-passer called him and gave him until noon to take his side in the dispute or see his own racy emails go public. The court votes to suspend porno-judge, and for good measure the chief calls him “a sociopath” in a concurring opinion.

    It’s no weirder than the Larsen case. After Larsen was reprimanded for an improper meeting about a pending case, he went to war with two other justices, accusing them of taking “indirect kickbacks,” recording private conversations, and, in one case, “commandeering” a car that nearly ran him over near the Four Seasons hotel.

    Between Larsen and the current circus we’ve had any number of embarrassing episodes, including the conviction of Justice Joan Orie Melvin on campaign corruption charges.

    As long as we keep electing judges, from time to time we can expect them to display the greed, venality, deal-making, and grudge-nursing politicians are known for.

    Merit selection: An idea whose time has come — again and again.

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