Senators Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Judy Schwank (D-Berks) Tuesday called for renewed efforts to improve the accountability of Commonwealth justices and said punishment still must be delivered to those involved in the recent email scandal.
The statewide email scandal ensnared former PA Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin, who announced his retirement a week ago.
“Pennsylvania cannot continue to have a system that allows – and shields – its jurists and prosecutors from punishment for unethical behavior,” Sen. Williams said in response to a growing public mistrust of the judicial discipline system. “The Court of Judicial Discipline must be free from conflicts of interest like those which arise naturally when disciplining their own appointing authority.”
“The inappropriate handling by the Judicial Conduct Board in recent cases against sitting state Supreme Court Justices show how vulnerable our current investigative and disciplinary processes are to inappropriate influence by the Supreme Court,” Sen. Schwank said. “To restore confidence in the courts and our judicial process, we need now to deal effectively with judicial misconduct at all levels.”
As part of their reform efforts, the senators co-sponsored Senate Bill 1083 to remove the state Supreme Court from the judicial discipline process, and to:
-- Revitalize the conduct board and disciplinary court by transferring the Supreme Court's power to appoint members to those panels to the governor and legislature
-- Reduce the number of judges allowed to sit on the panels and increase the number of public citizen members
-- Make them fiscally independent of the court and prohibit the Supreme Court from inserting itself in these cases.
The lawmakers said their proposal needs to be considered soon by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“If you’re a woman, a minority, LGBT, these emails reveal just how so many people charged with protecting you and your interests view you and talk about you in private,” Sen. Schwank said. “Tragically, it’s the same way that people who make you feel unsafe in your home view you: as an unequal, as an object to be mocked, mistreated and abused.”
Also egregious, the senators said, was Judicial Conduct Board Chief Counsel Robert Graci’s purposeful decision to not immediately disclose his role as campaign manager for Eakin.
“Graci’s performance and the co-conspiracy to cover up these embarrassing emails by state Attorney General First Deputy Bruce Beemer and state Supreme Court Special Counsel Robert Byer are why we are re-stating our call for them to be removed from office,” Sen. Williams said. “We are also seeking sanctions against federal prosecutors who were involved in this outrage.”
Sen. Williams said he received a “pro-forma” response to a December 4 letter he mailed to Peter J. Smith, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District in Harrisburg. That letter asked Smith to reprimand or terminate the assistant U.S. attorneys under his charge involved in this matter. No such action has been made public in the nearly three months since that initial response.
A sponsor summary of Senate Bill 1083 is available online.