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The state Superior Court is the wrong court to hear a challenge regarding a judge’s administrative duties, the intermediate court has ruled.

In its March 14 decision in In re Recusal/John C. Lackatos, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Superior Court held that a challenge to a judge’s ability to appoint members to the local court’s conflict counsel should first be brought before the Commonwealth Court as a matter of original jurisdiction, and then brought to the state Supreme Court for appellate review. The court’s decision quashed for lack of jurisdiction an appeal of a judge’s order denying a request to transfer his responsibilities regarding appointing conflict counsel.

Writing for the majority, Judge Judith Ference Olson said that while the attorney presented the case as a review of an order denying recusal for an abuse of discretion, the claim was more accurately a challenge to the president judge’s authority to appoint conflict counsel.

“The instant appeal presents a unique set of circumstances and a unique procedural posture to which we have applied the fundamental rules of appellate jurisdiction,” Olson said. “Pennsylvania statutory law is clear that such challenges must be litigated in the first instance within the original jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Court. Thereafter, all appeals must be lodged within the exclusive appellate jurisdiction of our Supreme Court.”

According to Olson, in May 2011, attorney John C. Lackatos was set to engage in a sentencing hearing before Venango County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Oliver J. Lobaugh. However, Olson wrote, during a sidebar conference prior to the proceedings, Lackatos began talking to Lobaugh about his appointment to the 2013 list of conflict counsel attorneys for criminal defendants in the county.

Olson said that “an exchange ensued, during which [Lobaugh] expressed his lack of confidence in [Lackatos'] professionalism” because Lackatos had failed to appear for previously scheduled proceedings.

During the discussion, Lackatos moved for recusal of Lobaugh for the sentencing hearing, saying that the judge expressed no confidence in him as a criminal defense lawyer, and that perception may lead to the appearance of impropriety or a conflict of interest, Olson said.

Although Lobaugh stated for the record that he felt he could be fair and impartial toward Lackatos’ clients, he recused himself to avoid an appearance of impropriety, Olson said.

Lobaugh issued an order recusing himself from all cases dealing with Lackatos in August 2011.

In November 2012, Lackatos moved for a clarification of the recusal, specifically asking whether the recusal applied to administrative as well as client-represented matters. The motion also requested Lackatos be appointed to the 2013 conflict counsel, and asked that Lobaugh refer his motion requesting appointment to the conflict counsel to the Venango County court administrator for assignment to another judge.

Lackatos, Olson noted in a footnote, had been listed as conflict counsel in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010.

In December 2012, Lobaugh issued an order clarifying his recusal, saying that while he was recused from cases involving Lackatos, the recusal did not release him from his administrative and executive duties. Lobaugh refused to transfer responsibility for making the conflict counsel assignments, and denied Lackatos’ appointment request, Olson said.

The attorney then filed his appeal with the Superior Court. Lackatos asked the court whether Lobaugh should have recused himself from considering the motions, and whether he incorrectly limited his recusal to only client-related matters and not attorney-related matters.

Olson said the Superior Court typically has authority to review orders denying recusal for abuse of discretion; however, since Lobaugh had granted the request for recusal, Lackatos did not have a claim regarding a denial of the recusal. The panel, Olson said, would consider the claims to be a challenge to a president judge’s authority to issue administrative orders identifying conflict counsel, and an objection to the merits of those administrative selections.

Olson noted that Lobaugh’s clarification was issued in his capacity as the president judge and administrator of the court, which are authorities granted through the Judicial Code. In the Commonwealth Court’s 2002 decision in In re Domestic Relations Hearing Room, the court found that a judge is considered “the commonwealth government” when sued in an official capacity, and 42 Pa.C.S. Section 761(a)(1) provides that the Commonwealth Court has jurisdiction over all civil actions against the commonwealth government, Olson noted.

“At its core, this case involves an individual’s challenge to the authority of a president judge to issue orders pursuant to his administrative duties, as well as a challenge to the substantive merit of his decisions,” Olson said. “Prior decisions issued by the Commonwealth Court have held that the original jurisdiction of that tribunal is the proper forum to challenge an administrative order entered by a trial court.”

Lackatos, who appealed the case pro se, and Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts attorney Colin Haviland, who represented Lobaugh, did not return calls for comment.

Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or mmitchell@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI.

(Copies of the 11-page opinion in In re Recusal/John C. Lackatos, PICS No. 14-0412, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •