Pennsylvania lawmakers push changes for judicial discipline

    Pennsylvania Sen. Anthony Williams

    Pennsylvania Sen. Anthony Williams

    State senators Tuesday urged their colleagues to advance their plans to change how judicial conduct cases are handled in Pennsylvania.

    A proposed amendment to the state Constitution would overhaul how the commonwealth’s court system metes out discipline for its justices and judges. The issue is particularly relevant this week, after a second state Supreme Court justice resigned over an exchange of offensive e-mails with prosecutors and others.

    The entire affair has led lawmakers to scrutinize the ways Pennsylvania’s court system judges its own.

    “We’re calling for judicial reform, of course,” said Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks. “Because the events of the last year and a half involving members of our court and many others have raised really serious concerns about whether Pennsylvanians can obtain fair and equal treatment in our courts.”

    The constitutional amendment backed by Schwank and Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, has bipartisan support in the Senate. It’s sat before the Judiciary Committee since December.

    Schwank noted that the changes would limit the state Supreme Court’s ability to insert itself into disciplinary cases of state justices and judges, as critics say the court has done recently in the wake of the objectionable emails scandal.

    “The court cannot be in the unique position of being able to choose its own judges in conduct cases,” said Schwank.

    Under the amendment, any formal charges brought by the judicial ethics watchdog to the Court of Judicial Discipline would trigger a paid suspension for that justice or judge. The plan would also overhaul the membership of the watchdog board and the disciplinary court, giving the legislature more influence over both panels.

    Constitutional amendments require passage in two consecutive legislative sessions and, then, approval by voter referendum.

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