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Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Deborah S. Griffin’s use of a false Social Security number to obtain credit card accounts doesn’t rise to the level of an infamous crime that would disqualify her from holding office, her attorney argued yesterday before the state Supreme Court. Griffin, who was retained to a second six-year term in November, is the subject of a quo warranto action filed jointly by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. The arguments in Pittsburgh marked the latest chapter in Griffin’s struggle with her past and her second visit to the Supreme Court to face a challenge to her office. The commonwealth asserts Griffin is barred from holding elected office under Article II, Section 7, of the state constitution because she has been convicted of an infamous crime. Griffin was indicted in 1984 on four counts related to her alleged use of a false Social Security number to obtain credit cards from various companies. She pleaded guilty to two felony counts in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, according to court documents. Two counts were dropped and Griffin’s sentence of imprisonment was suspended. A federal district judge instead sentenced Griffin to serve two concurrent three-year terms of probation and pay restitution to the credit card companies, according to briefs in the case. Samuel C. Stretton, of West Chester, Pa., who represents Griffin, urged the court to reconsider its 2000 holding in Commonwealth ex rel. Baldwin v. Richard that all felonies and crimes of deceit are infamous crimes for purposes of the state constitution’s prohibition because it erases years worth of jurisprudential nuance on the subject. “What I’m suggesting is the court’s bright lines are too severe,” Stretton said. Rather, a felony or crimen falsi must impair the public administration of justice to trigger the constitutional prohibition. He suggested that the court adopt that standard as a benchmark for identifying infamous crimes. Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg, arguing for the commonwealth, rejected Griffin’s claim. “Her argument really flies in the face of nearly 200 years of this court’s holdings,” he said. “Even if there had to be some impairment of the public administration of government, she doesn’t explain why her crime does not,” Eisenberg said. Eisenberg also rejected Griffin’s reliance on the Supreme Court’s 1842 decision in Commonwealth v. Shaver, which specifically requires the crime involved to affect the public administration of justice. Even if there was a conflict between Baldwin and Shaver, the more recent precedent would apply, but the Baldwin court stated that it was reaffirming the precedent established in Shaver, under which there is no need to establish that a felony affected the public administration of justice, Eisenberg said. “Every case from Shaver to Baldwin has said the same thing,” he said. Justice Max Baer noted that the constitution specifies that embezzlement of public monies is a crime that triggers the prohibition. Stretton replied that the falsification was a private business matter and added that the only element of falsification or fraud was the fake Social Security number Griffin used. She provided her own name and address and paid the credit card bills. Griffin also argued that the lengthy delay in the challenge of her right to hold public office implicates the doctrine of laches and that because she was elected to a first term, she should be allowed to continue in the second. According to the commonwealth’s brief, Griffin has faced professional difficulties connected with her convictions in the past. She was denied admission to the bar in Missouri, where she attended law school. When she applied to become a member of the Pennsylvania bar, she denied any criminal record. In 1990, the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel instituted proceedings against Griffin, who was also dismissed from a position in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. In 1994, the Supreme Court, acting on the recommendation of the ODC, suspended Griffin for two years. After her election to the Municipal Court in 2001, the state Judicial Conduct Board instituted a quo warranto action, which the Supreme Court rejected. The court ruled in 2007 that the JCB only has jurisdiction over the conduct of judges while in office. The district attorney or the attorney general must instead file the action, the court said. The commonwealth’s brief says Griffin’s decision in August 2007 to seek retention raised the issue anew and prompted the filing of the latest quo warranto action. Stretton said the extreme delay in filing the action is also prejudicial to Griffin, who gave up a private practice to become a judge. “When one develops a private practice, it takes years,” Stretton said. “Once you give it up, you don’t come back. It’s not there.” Eisenberg called Griffin’s assertion that she should be allowed to remain on the bench even if she is disqualified absurd. “That would put her in the position of being the only judge in the commonwealth sitting on the bench who is a convicted felon,” Eisenberg said. Addressing Griffin’s argument that Article II, Section 7, of the state constitution doesn’t apply to judges because Article V applies specifically to the judiciary, Eisenberg said the logic would render the provision a dead letter. Article V deals with removal of judges for infractions committed while on the bench, and under Griffin’s reasoning, it would be impossible to remove a judge from office for any conduct prior to his or her election, he said. Similarly, other articles and sections of the constitution provide measures for removing executive and legislative officers. “Under that rationale, no one would be subject to Article II, Section 7,” Eisenberg said. Griffin, who attended yesterday’s arguments in Pittsburgh with her mother and son, said she was in an abusive marriage at the time she falsified the credit card applications and the experience led her to attend law school. She said she is puzzled about why the action against her was filed now. Philadelphia-based Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justice Seamus P. McCaffery recused themselves from consideration of the matter. Castille was the Philadelphia district attorney who fired Griffin from her job in 1990. McCaffery was her colleague on the Philadelphia Municipal Court. Baer said, before the argument, his son works in the District Attorney’s Office, but that he is unaware of any reason that he should not consider the case.

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