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Even before the public dust-up with Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille, Duquesne Law School professor Bruce Ledewitz was a lightning rod in the legal community. To some, he is a media hound who is “off the wall” and “reckless” in his criticisms of the high court. Judges who I think of as having thick skins have a problem with him. To others, he’s a principled guy who sometimes doesn’t watch his words carefully enough and has been pointing out problems with the courts for years. Which is he? That probably largely depends on what you believe before you ever hear anything he has to say. But his rise to prominence is not a product of the media alone. As I wrote in my last column, I never heard anything negative about Ledewitz until the pay-raise fiasco. People I rely on and respect are split on their opinions of him. There have been times when I’ve thought his criticisms were well aimed. However, calling the pay-raise decision a “judicial swindle” and reportedly accusing the justices of being corrupt – the comments that apparently set off the spat with Castille – is not one of those instances. Yes, I have been highly critical of the court and some of its members for the way the initial pay raise was handled and for what I saw as a shoddy opinion. But I’ve never questioned the justices’ motives. And I think it’s a mistake for anyone else to do so. I just don’t see anything to back up the terms Ledewitz used. I think the court and some of its members created appearance problems, and did and said some things that wound up undermining the public’s confidence in them, but I think they were motivated to do what they felt was right, and that was securing a raise for all the judges. And generally, that’s the view I’ve heard around the Pennsylvania legal community: Ledewitz needs to be more cautious with his terms. It’s OK to be a critic, but if you use over-the-top language all the time, or are always critical and never find anything good to say about the court, then you will undermine your own credibility in the long run. The law and politics are rarely black and white. The best analysts and critics realize that and understand they need to be clear-eyed and nuanced in their observations, while also never pulling their punches. The fact is the courts – and the public – need court critics. No institution, no matter how principled its members may be, can maintain its integrity without at least a little give and take from critics and public scrutiny. Which leads me to why the media talk to Ledewitz. Contrary to what some suggest, it’s not because he always has a hot quote critical of the court, although that probably doesn’t hurt him. It is because he is knowledgeable about the state courts and because so few have been willing to view the courts with a critical eye and comment publicly over the last 15 years. Ledewitz has consistently been one of the few professors reporters could call and get a detailed answer from regarding the state appellate courts. I know this because back in the 1990s I struggled to find law school professors who could give me a thoughtful view of state court rulings or voting patterns, or trends in the appellate courts – or who were willing to be quoted. I used to call law schools, professors and media relations folks looking for people to comment, and, quite frankly, there weren’t a lot who could. There may be more professors now who are knowledgeable and who can offer insights, but Ledewitz has close to 20 years of credibility with the press. Reporters will always go back to people who actually know what you’re asking about and can answer your questions and are willing to comment publicly. Then there’s the issue of balance. When the press covers a story, they usually look for voices on both sides of an issue, pro and con, for lack of a better description. Ledewitz’s critics who argue that quoting him is not good, balanced journalism would be correct if he was the only person quoted in a story. But that’s rarely the case. Over the last 15 years or so, most of the bar associations have been very supportive of the courts and have rarely, if ever, been critical of them or any of its members. In an attempt to find balance, reporters will call someone like Ledewitz for an opinion because they want to speak with someone who can’t be accused of being a cheerleader for the courts. I realize bar associations need to walk a fine line and they often view themselves as defending the entire justice system, not any particular court or judge. I certainly don’t question their motives or integrity. But I know that some, both in the media and in the legal community, think the bar associations have lost some of their independence and sometimes appear to be mouthpieces for the courts. For instance, during all the controversy regarding the firing of the U.S. attorneys, have journalists only talked to loyalists of President Bush? No. They’ve often quoted people like New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, who has rarely had anything positive to say about the president or any of his appointees. Some might scoff at comparing Ledewitz to Schumer, but again, I think that largely depends on how you feel about the individuals, regardless of what either one says. The journalistic practice remains the same: Oftentimes, in the absence of someone who can be truly identified as an objective expert, reporters will ask the opposing sides in an argument. When it comes to the courts, that’s often been the bar associations and Ledewitz. For the sake of his own credibility, Ledewitz needs to make sure he is more careful about his use of words and avoid getting swept up in angry rhetorical flourishes. But other knowledgeable observers in the legal community also need to step up and point out problems with the courts – or at least acknowledge when others perceive there to be problems. I don’t remember anyone from the organized bars speaking out about former Justice Rolf Larsen – later impeached and removed from office – until after he was gone. While the federal courts were highly critical of a former chief justice for calling a county judge during a criminal trial and the state courts for not addressing the issue, I don’t remember anyone from the organized bars speaking out about that either. None of that is to suggest that the bars and their leaders have been asleep at the wheel or that the current justices haven’t done a number of things over the years to put the Larsen scandal behind them and improve the court. What it does show, though, is that there is a need to watch all our institutions and speak out when something doesn’t appear to be right. If you need proof, let me suggest that everyone in the legal community should read the grand jury report in the Larsen matter and Judge Clarence Newcomer’s May 1995 opinion in Yohn v. Love. Again, even the noblest of institutions and individuals acting in good faith makes mistakes. If there are more clear-eyed and truly objective voices in the legal community who are willing to speak publicly, it will limit the influence of one critic. It will also restore more confidence in the self-regulation of the law and better protect our legal institutions from intrusion by outside forces that might try to portray the legal profession as insular and apathetic. And how does judicial independence fit into all this? Well, that will just have to wait for the next column. HANK GREZLAK is the editor-in-chief of The Legal Intelligencer . He may be contacted at 215-557-2486, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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