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Just when you started to think it was safe to don a black robe and sit on the bench in Pennsylvania, here comes a federal indictment that has a lot of people in the legal community scrambling. The federal mail fraud and money-laundering charges against Superior Court Judge Michael T. Joyce obviously apply only to him. However, the state judiciary, particularly at the appellate level, is often tied together in the eyes of the public. Given recent history, and the impending judicial elections this fall � including retention elections � Joyce’s indictment could have a broad and negative impact on his fellow jurists. Pennsylvania’s judges needed Joyce’s indictment like they needed a hole in the head. For that reason alone, the state Supreme Court was right to suspend Joyce with full pay immediately. Without hesitation. From all matters. A few people had suggested he be taken off only criminal matters or those pertaining to insurance issues. That would have been a huge mistake, and seen as a joke by the public. In their order Friday, the justices rightly relieved Joyce “of any and all judicial and administrative responsibilities as a judge,” and ordered him “not to take any further administrative or judicial action whatsoever in any case or proceeding” now or pending before the Superior Court. They cited the “compelling and immediate need to protect and preserve” the judicial system as the reason for the order. The high court’s reasoning is dead-on. Because Joyce’s indictment is a cloud hanging over the system until it plays out. I’m sure this is the last thing the Supreme Court wants to deal with. The court has had enough headaches in recent years. Two years ago it was the fallout from the pay-raise fiasco, which bruised Chief Justice Ralph Cappy, cost Justice Russell Nigro his seat, and was a factor in Justice Sandra Schultz Newman stepping down at the end of 2006. Next it was the public’s anger over the court’s 2006 decision to reinstate the raises for the judges. Then earlier this year there was the very public dust-up between Justice Ronald Castille and perennial court critic Duquesne Law School professor Bruce Ledewitz. The state’s judges have taken plenty of hits the last two years. Some deserved, some not. The public’s attitude toward them has been fairly hostile during that time. I’ve been curious to see what’s going to happen this election. A lot of the people I’ve spoken to in the legal community have said they were watching closely too, in part to see if there was still residual anger over the pay raise. The Joyce indictment is not going to help. The timing for Joyce, as well as his fellow jurists running for retention, couldn’t be worse. Given the public’s attitude in recent years toward members of the judiciary � and groups that are quick to jump on anything they see as judges misbehaving � I don’t think Joyce’s odds of winning retention are very good. Will that spill over to other retention elections? I hope not. But you never know. This election will be a test for the general public. I’ve said all along that if the public kicks out Justice Thomas Saylor � the lone dissenter in the pay-raise decision � then that means the public’s anger is completely indiscriminate and unfocused. If that’s the case, then Joyce’s indictment will only fan the flames of resentment. Some cynics will say that given the current climate, the Supreme Court was bound to effectively throw Joyce under the bus. I don’t see it that way. If they just wanted to do that, they could have done it Thursday when news of the indictment hit and suspended him without pay. Instead, you get the sense the justices looked at all the circumstances and came to a decision that preserved the system’s integrity without punishing Joyce before he’s had a chance to defend himself. It goes without saying that Joyce is owed the presumption of innocence. But that doesn’t mean he should be hearing cases. Judges are held to a higher ethical standard, as they should be given their place and their power in our society. It would have been a slap in the face to the system to have an indicted judge hearing cases. Especially when you consider the seriousness of those charges. The allegations that he filed fraudulent claims with two insurance carriers after a 2001 car crash go to the heart of his integrity. If he’s proven guilty, he will have disgraced the court and done a disservice to all those people he sat in judgment of. If he’s found innocent, Joyce should be allowed back on the bench and given the opportunity to restore his good name. Which is why I disagree with those who say he should bow out of the retention race. Joyce should be allowed to run for retention despite the indictment. Otherwise, he might find himself cleared of the charges, but out of a job as a judge. The voters might provide that result for him come November, but that’s their prerogative. Joyce shouldn’t be forced to completely abandon his career before he’s had a chance to defend himself. It’s a dark day again for the state’s judiciary. But if there’s a ray of hope anywhere, it’s the Supreme Court’s ability to confront a difficult issue quickly and fairly. Hopefully, the justices’ swift action will quell any anger, as well as help restore the public’s faith in the judiciary. 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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