Over the last several years, three separate scandals involving three separate judges have hit the Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.
These and other issues have prompted the nonpartisan Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts to issue a report detailing the judicial discipline system’s shortfalls — and recommending what the state can do to fix it.
The high-profile problems came one after another.
In 2013, Justice Joan Orie Melvin was convicted of multiple felonies related to her use of state employees for campaign work.
In 2014, Justice Seamus McCaffery was implicated in the now-infamous Porngate scandal for sending thousands of lewd emails from a work account. He was suspended, and ultimately resigned.
Around the same time, Justice Michael Eakin, was also implicated in the email debacle. The court first exonerated him, but after more of his emails leaked, he was suspended and resigned last year.
There’s a common problem in all these cases — the way the court handles discipline, said Maida Milone, president and CEO of the PMC group.
“There were not only weaknesses in the characters of the justices who were involved, but weaknesses in the judicial discipline system itself,” she said. “If the system they operate in doesn’t require accountability, transparency and fairness, transgressions are going to occur.”
Among other things, PMC advocates more openness in selection of the Judicial Conduct Board, a disclosure process to prevent conflicts of interest, and additional powers that would let the board pursue charges against judges even after they’ve resigned.
Most of these fixes could be made with rules changes, should the court system take the recommendations to heart. Some would probably take legislative action, Milone said.
The court system has so far not responded to the recommendations.