Attorneys Say Judicial Misconduct Erodes Public Confidence

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge Seamus McCaffery. — AP Photo/McCaffery campaign office, File

With the war of words between suspended state Supreme Court Judge Seamus McCaffery and Chief Justice Ronald Castille continuing without mitigation, some critics contended the confrontations and the reasons for them erode public confidence in the judiciary.

McCaffery was suspended this past week by the court with only one dissenting opinion, from Justice Debra Todd. In his opinion Chief Justice Castille wrote his colleagues’ actions impact the integrity of the judicial system.

McCaffery has come under fire because of the more than two hundred sexually explicit e-mails he allegedly received and sent to employees of the state attorney general’s office. He contended the emails he received were on a personal account. The Judicial Conduct Board has 30 days to decide if McCaffery will face formal charges of misconduct.

Former Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Renee Cardwell Hughes said trust in the judicial system takes years to build and seconds to break. Those who serve need to hold themselves to a higher standard, she said.

“The most important thing to say is that the sanctity of our judicial system is built on the public’s ability to have absolute trust and faith in it,” she said. “Therefore it’s critical that those who serve hold themselves to a higher standard of conduct. Trust takes years to build but seconds to break and years to repair. This is a really appropriate time for the judicial community to dialog about the qualifications for serving on the bench and the criteria for evaluating continued service. McCaffery deserves due process, of course, but when a person accepts the position you really must agree to hold yourself to a higher standard for the good of us all.”

In his opinion Chief Justice Castille responded to the many remarks and allegations by McCaffery regarding what he termed as a personal mission to discredit him. Castille said that one of those allegations was true; that he was, in fact, trying to have him removed from the bench. Castile said in his opinion that in his two decades of experience on the court, no other justice has done as much to bring the Supreme Court into disrepute. No other justice has failed to live up to the high ethical standard required of a justice of this court or has been the constant focus of ethical lapses to the degree of McCaffery.

Castille also referenced allegation arising from actions McCaffery took over traffic tickets received by his wife, who is also an attorney and referral fees she took when she worked for him as an administrative assistant. McCaffery has said Castille is out to get him.

“As an attorney I find all of this disturbing and disgusting,” said attorney Leon King. King, the former commissioner of the Philadelphia Prison System and a former candidate for judge said the judicial establishment needs to do a better job of policing itself. He also said the recent verbal back-and-forth between Castille and McCaffery does everyone a disservice.

“We’ve seen several judges come under investigation and, yes, this erodes public confidence in the judicial system,” King said. “It benefits no one when Castille calls McCaffery a sociopath or when McCaffery makes public accusations against a colleague. All of that is just over the top and clearly personal in my opinion.”

Local defense attorney and community activist Michael Coard said voters need to concern themselves with a judge’s scholarship, credentials, experience and his or her record on critical social issues.

“Instead of people majoring in the minor, they need to major in the majors by monitoring and evaluating and judging all judges on their experience, scholarship, objectivity and sense of justice,” Coard said. “Let’s look at a judge’s record on affirmative action, police brutality, capital punishment, the prison industrial complex, mandatory sentencing and privacy invasion and so on. People need to understand that judges must be vigilantly judged by the community because judges have more power than mayors, governors and even the president. Judges can take your property by imposing a fine, your liberty by throwing you in jail, your children by issuing a custody order and your life by imposing the death penalty. That is what’s really important. “

Francis O’Connor, president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association said McCaffery’s conduct has put a cloud over the state’s highest court. Castille, he said, was right in suspending him.

“The recent discovery of the sending of [an] inappropriate email by a member of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has cast a cloud over our Commonwealth’s highest court,” O’Conner said. “In suspending Justice McCaffery, the Supreme Court has taken steps to deal with this unfortunate situation in order to protect the dignity of the justice system and promote public confidence in the judiciary.”

Contact staff writer Larry Miller at (215) 893-5782 or lmiller@phillytrib.com

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