The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s frat house hijinks

     

    Somebody should pitch a reality show called Keystone Court Capers. Too bad Animal House is already taken – unless we go with Political Animal House, because that’s the best description of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which has been waging a food fight worthy of Bluto Blutarsky.

    Are you up to speed on all the latest antics? Let’s review them at length, if only to supply us with comic relief on the eve of the slimy midterm elections (record-high spending for attack ads, potential record-low turnout) – even though what these judges have done to undermine public faith in the courts is profoundly unfunny.

    Anyway, in the pilot episode of our reality show (which mirrors real life), Ron and Seamus and Michael would pelt each other with priceless insults. Ron would call Seamus a sociopath, Seamus would call Ron a vindictive egomaniac, Michael would call Seamus a self-victimizing blackmailer, Ron would denounce Seamus for emailing a picture of a woman having sex with a snake…

    We’ll get back to the snake in a minute.

    Such is life these days on the state’s highest bench, where the robed brethren seem determined, by dint of word, action, and email, to strengthen the longstanding case for merit selection. Pennsylvania is one of only seven states that chooses its top judges in partisan elections, a system that virtually codifies corruption – lawyers routinely shovel campaign money to judges, then argue cases in front of said judges; nationwide, business groups with deep pockets virtually buy the elected judges – and on too many occasions, Pennsylvania’s judges commit political hackery.

    Actually, the bad stuff that used to happen in Pennsylvania now seems tame. Back in the ’90s, high court judge Rolf Larsen was publicly rebuked by colleagues for improperly talking to a trial judge, he retaliated by accusing those colleagues of doing the same thing, but ultimately he was impeached for taking too much case advice from a key political supporter back home. (He was also convicted for having fraudulently obtained prescription drugs, but that’s another story.)

    And two years ago, Judge Joan Orie Melvin quit after being convicted on six criminal counts of politicking on the public’s dime; she had dragooned her judicial staffers, and legislative staffers from the office of her sister, a state senator, to stump with her on the campaign hustings. Yet she still hasn’t served her sentence, because the courts still can’t agree on what it oughta be. The original idea was that, among other things, she should pen an apology to every judge statewide by writing it on a photo that shows her in handcuffs. The handcuff idea has since been shelved; she might get house arrest.

    But none of that tops the latest hijinks. Namely, the porno.

    Judge Seamus McCaffery, a Philadelphia Democrat who once ran the “drunk court” set up in the pits of the old Veterans Stadium to process inebriated Eagles fans, was recently found to have sent 234 pornographic emails to pals in the state Attorney General’s office. This was apparently the last straw for Chief Justice Ron Castille, a Philadelphia Republican whose long-held distaste for McCaffery has now seeped into his writings.

    When McCaffery was suspended on Oct. 20, Castille saw him off with a six-page opinion that labeled his colleague “a sociopath.” Then Castille told us how he really felt: “The most recent misconduct of Justice McCaffery – forwarding sexually explicit pornographic emails to members of the AG’s office (and in one instance an email depicting a 100 year old woman as the target of a sexually explicit joke and a video of a woman in sexual congress with a snake that is clearly obscene and may violate the Crime Codes Section on Obscenity) has caused the Supreme Court to be held up to public ridicule.”

    In terms of constitutional heft, that’s not exactly 1803’s Marbury v. Madison.

    But there’s a lot more to this episode. A few days before Castille’s missive, McCaffery tried to forge an alliance with a colleague, J. Michael Eakin. The plan was for Eakin to persuade Castille to back off – and to ensure Eakin’s cooperation, McCaffery said he was prepared to tell the media that Eakin had received some porn emails on his personal Yahoo account. Eakin promptly complained to the state Judicial Conduct Board, said that he never opened those emails, and quoted McCaffery as vowing that he “was not going down alone.” He didn’t explicitly call McCaffery a blackmailer – judge for yourself – but he derided McCaffery as “self-victimizing.”

    Meanwhile, McCaffery was assailing Castille for the porn accusations (“the latest lie in the chief justice’s egomaniacal mission to ‘get me'”), and for running the Supreme Court “during one of its most scandal-ridden periods since its inception in 1722.” McCaffery did manage to apologize for what he called his “lapse of judgment” – even though his lapses totaled 234 – and he’s now gone for good, having quit on Oct. 27 and securing an annual pension estimated at 150 grand.

    But there was actually a smidgen of truth in his critique of Castille’s tenure. While Castille was laxly supervising construction of the new Philadelphia Family Court building, a Republican insider-lawyer was allowed to reap big bucks from the developer as well as the taxpayer – in essence, collecting from buyer as well as seller. Castille severed the arrangement only after the press exposed it.

    Nor was McCaffery entirely wrong when he dinged Castille for slow-walking the state’s “Kids for Cash” scandal (this was a beaut), in which Luzerne County judges meted out overly severe sentences to young offenders and funneled them to juvenile detention centers in exchange for kickbacks from the guy who built the centers. Court watchdogs said that Castille sat on the evidence for eight months, until the U.S. Attorney big-footed the case and forced him to act.

    There’s no guarantee, of course, that the state’s high court judges would be cleaner or wiser if they were chosen by merit; no guarantee that merit-picked judges would eschew porn and personal insults. But it’s noteworthy that both gubernatorial candidates want to abolish elections. The porn is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg; to borrow a phrase from Castille’s screed against McCaffery, the judges are “held up to public ridicule” whenever they preside over lawyers whose firms donate to their campaigns. The public can’t help but believe that, routinely, the fix is in. Indeed, according to a ’13 national poll, 59 percent of Americans believe that campaign donations greatly influence elected judges’ rulings.

    Problem is, merit selection bills die each year in the hackish Harrisburg legislature, a Bermuda Triangle where reform is routinely made to disappear. Granted, the lawmakers love the status quo, because they too contribute to the judges’ campaigns. But you still have to wonder: If snake porn and reality show antics can’t rattle the old-boy machinery, whatever will?

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

     

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