Major Reforms Hit PA Courts – PA Headlines 1/4 Counterpoint PA Jan 2014



Welcome to Counterpoint PA, the only grassroots progressive newscast exclusively about Pennsylvania politics, I’m your host, Aaron DiDonato.

Major changes to the state judicial code of conduct were announced on January 8th that are intended to root out unfair bias in Pennsylvania’s court system, both in who judges hire and the decisions they make from the bench. Foremost among these reforms are a ban on judges hiring family and major campaign donors and a ban on judges serving on corporate boards. So if you’re as wildly cynical as to think that a corporation paying a judge to serve on their board might impact some of that judge’s decisions, this is some really good news for you.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that, “The judicial canons, as they are called, are not criminal statutes, but judges have been suspended and even removed for violating them. [Pennsylvania Supreme Court] Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said the code was debated line by line by him and the other six justices on the high court until each provision won unanimous approval.”

Here’s some of what they came up with.

Rule 2.13 in the new canons states that quote, “In making administrative appointments and hiring decisions, a judge shall exercise the power of appointment impartially and on the basis of merit; and shall avoid nepotism, favoritism, and unnecessary appointments.”

This marks a drastic change from previous state policy, under which state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery hired his own wife as his chief administrative judicial assistant who subsequently received an over-$800,000 referral fee he is now being federally investigated for according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s piece on the judicial code reforms, which also reports that “The rule on nepotism … will be prospective, meaning that those family members already hired will not lose their jobs, but will eventually be gone through attrition.”

In a potentially significant campaign finance reform victory, the new judicial code similarly bans judges from appointing and hiring major campaign donors. Also from Rule 2.13: “A judge shall not appoint a lawyer to a position if the judge either knows that the lawyer, or the lawyer’s spouse or domestic partner, has contributed as a major donor within the prior two years to the judge’s election campaign.” Section 4 of Rule 2.11 says judges must disqualify themselves from cases involving lawyers, their relatives or their law firms that have given them campaign contributions “in an amount that would raise a reasonable concern about the fairness or impartiality” of a judge.

The American Bar Association’s model judicial code recommends setting a specific dollar amount that would require judges to disqualify themselves in cases involving campaign donors, but the new Pennsylvania code does not. And this is why I say this has the potential to be a significant campaign finance reform victory. It sounds to me like not having a specific dollar amount makes it easier to break the rule, and apparently the American Bar Association agrees. How it winds up getting enforced will reveal whether this new rule is deserving of any hype.

In a more certain victory against the influence of money in politics, Rule 3.11 states quote “A judge shall not serve as an officer, director, manager, general partner, advisor, or employee of any business entity.” This signifies another drastic departure from previous Pennsylvania policy which, for example, allowed the president judge of Carbon County to serve on the corporate board of the county’s largest bank and an Allegheny County common pleas senior judge to serve on the corporate board of US Steel Corporation for ten years, getting paid over $200,000 by the corporation in the final year alone.

Think about how you would feel if you’d been wronged by one of these corporations and the judge in your case or their superior was literally on their payroll. Thanks to these reforms, blatant unfairness like that should become a thing of the past. The new judicial code is set to take effect this July, with judges being required to resign from any corporate board service by July of next year. To read more about the new rules including the esoteric exceptions to the rules I just explained, you can get the link to the full new Pennsylvania judicial code of conduct at counterpointpa.org.

January 16, 2014 · Aaron · One Comment
Posted in: Campaign Finance / Government Reform, Courts, Justice, PA Headlines, Pennsylvania Supreme Court, State Government

One Response

  1. Major Reforms Hit PA Courts | Raging Chicken Press - January 16, 2014

    […] or to browse the show’s categorized video archive, go to http://counterpointpa.org. (Go here if you want to go right to the post for this […]

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