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Superior Court Judge Michael T. Joyce announced yesterday afternoon he would withdraw his bid for retention and retire from the bench when his term ends this year. The announcement came minutes after Joyce’s lawyer entered a not-guilty plea at the embattled judge’s arraignment on mail fraud and money-laundering charges in federal court in Erie, Pa. Joyce, 58, is free on $5,000 unsecured bail and was ordered to surrender his passport. Prosecutors allege Joyce lied about being injured in a minor car accident in 2001 to fraudulently collect $440,000 in settlements from two insurance companies. “It is with immense regret that in light of recent events and after numerous discussions with my family, friends, colleagues and party leaders, I have decided to withdraw my name from the retention ballot this November. Therefore, I will retire from the bench effective at the end of my current term,” Joyce said in a statement released about 3 p.m. The statement said Joyce would not discuss the charges and that he planned to focus on mounting a “vigorous legal defense.” Joyce was first elected in 1997 after serving 12 years as an Erie County Common Pleas Court judge. His attorney, David Ridge of Ridge & McLaughlin in Erie, did not return calls. Shira T. Goodman, associate director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts in Philadelphia, said Joyce’s decision may be to avoid any impact on the judiciary’s image in what could be a sensitive election year for state judges. “To make this decision, I think that it reflects him placing the institution of the court and judiciary above his personal interests,” Goodman said. “If he is vindicated, he has given up a position that is obviously very important to him.” Excluding Joyce, seven state appellate court judges face retention elections in November: In the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas G. Saylor; in the Superior Court, Judges Correale F. Stevens, Joan Orie Melvin and John L. Musmanno; and in the Commonwealth Court, President Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter and Judges Doris A. Smith-Ribner and Bernard L. McGinley. “Retention has changed somewhat in Pennsylvania, and we don’t know exactly how it works now,” Goodman said. “His withdrawal is something that could help his fellow jurists by removing a distraction from the ballot.” Other Pennsylvania political gurus suggested Joyce’s indictment could create an atmosphere similar to that in 2005, when outrage over a legislative and judicial pay-raise bill passed in the middle of the night lead to former Justice Russell Nigro’s ouster at the hands of voters. PBA President Andrew F. Susko said that while it would have been very difficult for Joyce to run a successful retention campaign while under indictment, the impact on other judges seeking retention would have been limited. “The charges against the judge are charges that relate to him and specific conduct, not related to his work on the bench,” Susko said. “I don’t know if Judge Joyce’s decision to withdraw was based in any measure on his concern over how the indictment might have affected the other retention races,” Susko said. The investigation that lead to Joyce’s charges began 18 months ago, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Judicial Evaluation Commission – an independent body of the Pennsylvania Bar Association that vets and rates judicial candidates – recommended Joyce’s retention in June, despite news reports that the judge was the subject of an investigation. After federal prosecutors announced the indictment Wednesday, JEC Chairman Chris Gillotti said the commission would reconsider its recommendation. According to the nine-count indictment, Joyce received settlements from State Farm and Erie Insurance Group for injuries he claimed “affected his professional and personal life in a very significant way” after an SUV rear-ended his state-leased Mercedes Benz at a traffic light in Erie. Joyce claimed the accident made him unable to play golf, scuba dive or exercise. He also claimed the injuries prevented him from pursuing higher judicial office, according to the indictment. The judge complained of constant neck and back pain, headaches, difficulty sleeping, anxiety and short-term memory loss, according to the indictment. He claimed he was in such pain from May to July 2002 that he could not play a round of golf or hold a cup of coffee in his right hand, the indictment said. During the same period Joyce made these claims, he played several rounds of golf in Jamaica, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania, went scuba diving in Jamaica and renewed his diving-instructor’s certificate, prosecutors said. The indictment also alleges Joyce used some of the settlement money to buy a Harley Davidson motorcycle, a share in a single-engine Cessna airplane, property in Millcreek Township, Pa., and paid down a personal line of credit. U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania Mary Beth Buchanan said she couldn’t comment on the evidence against Joyce or how the federal authorities began investigating Joyce’s claims.

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