Don’t watch dirty videos at work: It seems like a common-sense rule, especially since the statewide embarrassment that was “porngate” is likely to still be fresh in the minds of Pennsylvania’s public officials.
But that rudimentary lesson—learned from the ruined careers of two state Supreme Court justices and other state officials who had pornographic emails on their government computers—was apparently lost on a Monroe County magisterial district judge who last week was hit with ethics charges.
The Supreme Court’s Judicial Conduct Board charged Judge Michael R. Muth with looking at pornography on multiple occasions in full view of the court staff at his chambers, nestled in the scenic mountainscape of the Poconos.
It’s unclear what was going through Muth’s mind at the time—or times—he viewed the videos on the job. At a deposition before the board in February, Muth admitted that he possessed and viewed pornography on his judicial computer in his chambers, but has not responded to multiple calls and emails for comment.
What is clear is that reform advocates in Pennsylvania are yet again calling for a better selection process in putting judges on the bench, along with intensified ethics training when judges are in office.
Maida Milone, executive director of the judicial reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, is one of those advocates.
“Clearly this kind of behavior evidences a need for a continued and aggressive emphasis on training around ethical behavior,” Milone said.
Milone’s organization has long endorsed merit selection—that is, the appointment of judges and justices by the governor rather than through elections.
Whether a judge is appointed or voted in, the question still remains: Does someone really need advanced training to know to avoid watching pornography at work?
“I do think we all benefit from continued exposure to what in changing times is considered appropriate conduct,” Milone said. “At the same time, I do believe that character is most important in our selection of all jurists in Pennsylvania.”
However, David Thornburgh, president of the governmental reform group the Committee of Seventy, said telling a judge not to pull up pornographic websites at work shouldn’t even be necessary.
“You don’t need a law or a reference to what happened in ‘porngate’ to lead to that conclusion,” Thornburgh said.
Ethics training is always a plus, according to Thornburgh, but he added, “you’d hope to have a member of the judiciary who’s supposed to be attuned to ethics responsibilities and where to draw the line that this should be a truth that is self-evident.”
But given Pennsylvania’s history, Thornburgh, like Milone, pointed to the latest incident as another sign that things need to change.
“This does raise the question [of] the process we have in place that screens these people,” he said.
Prospective magisterial district judges—who do not need law or college degrees to serve—receive four weeks of “judge school” before they can take the bench.
During that training period, individuals receive ethics classes that stress avoiding even the appearance of misconduct, according to Susan Davis, the executive director of the state’s Minor Judiciary Education Board.
“We try to instill in the judges that they’ve got to frame their behavior so that it creates confidence in the judiciary, and to be mindful that perception is everything,” she said.
In fact, “porngate” was used as a cautionary tale to teach incoming judges not to use their computers for anything inappropriate, according to Davis.
It was explained to judge school students as “a situation that was recently in the news that caused a judge to run afoul of the rules and as a result is no longer sitting,” Davis said.
Two state Supreme Court justices, Seamus P. McCaffery and J. Michael Eakin, left the bench amid the porngate scandal.
Asked whether the judicial education system needs improvement in keeping the state’s 517 magisterial district judges in line, Davis said there isn’t much more that can be done.
“With the sheer number of magisterial district judges, if you compare it to the low percentage of them that run afoul of the rules, I don’t know what else we could do,” Davis said.
Muth was charged by the Judicial Conduct Board on July 6 with viewing pornographic videos and images at in his chambers, in front of his clerks.
The board’s complaint alleged that on multiple occasions starting in 2013, Muth watched videos and looked at pictures of naked women performing sex acts on each other.
The images and videos were discovered by clerks passing by his desk, according to the complaint, which said Muth made no attempt to hide the images and that his computer was “positioned in such a manner that any person walking into Judge Muth’s judicial chambers could see the display.”