Meek Mill’s legal team is no stranger to digging into the background of jurists and raising issues they think may create a conflict, but as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court begins considering the rapper’s latest appeal, Justice Debra Todd is getting out ahead of any possible claims that campaign contributions might influence her handling of the case.
On Tuesday, Todd issued a disclosure letter outlining the money that Reed Smith attorneys contributed to her 2017 retention campaign. One of the lawyers, Pittsburgh-based Kim Watterson, is a leading attorney on Mill’s case, which is on appeal to the high court for the second time this year.
Mill, whose real name is Robert Williams, filed an emergency king’s bench appeal to the Supreme Court last week, asking that the justices exercise their plenary jurisdiction and remove Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Genece Brinkley from handling his case. Late last year Brinkley sentenced Mill to a lengthy prison term for a parole violation, and, ever since, Mill’s team has raised numerous issues, from lawsuits Brinkley has filed to allegations that she was infatuated with the hip-hop star, as part of their effort to get her tossed from the case.
Brinkley is currently set to preside over a hearing on June 18 regarding Mill’s post-conviction appeal.
According to Todd’s one-page disclosure, 12 Reed Smith lawyers contributed a total of $12,250 to her 2017 retention bid, including a $1,500 contribution from Watterson.
As part of the disclosure, Todd said, “I am confident that I can impartially and objectively participate in the consideration and decision of this case.” However, she said she intended to recuse from the appeal unless both parties agreed to waive her possible disqualification.
Maida Milone, executive director of the judicial reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said the disclosures show that Todd is taking recent rule changes regarding disclosing campaign contributions very seriously.
Milone noted that new rules put in place in 2014 and subsequent guidance by the Judicial Conduct Board changed the calculations judges and justices are supposed to make regarding disqualifying themselves from a case over campaign contributions. The guidance, she said, suggests that contributions of a few thousand dollars almost always call for jurists to conduct a disqualification analysis, and that the judges and justices are supposed to consider the question objectively, from the perspective of how the public might perceive the contributions.
“She’s doing exactly what she should be done, and she should be applauded for that,” Milone said.
As of late Wednesday afternoon, Todd was the only justice to make any disclosures regarding campaign contributions from Reed Smith attorneys, but she was far from the only justice to have received money from the well-known Pittsburgh-based firm in recent years.
According to a review of campaign records, Justice Christine Donohue received the largest amount from Reed Smith lawyers in recent years, with $24,119 in donations and in-kind contributions. The firm itself gave the justice $10,000 during her 2015 election campaign.
Records show Justice David Wecht received $12,700 in contributions from Reed Smith attorneys during his 2015 election bid, Justice Max Baer received $2,000 during his 2013 retention election and Justice Kevin Dougherty received $1,000.
Aside from Todd, only one other justice received campaign contributions from Watterson, according to campaign finance reports. Those records show that the lawyer also donated $1,500 to Chief Justice Thomas Saylor during his 2017 retention bid.
Justice Sallie Mundy was the only justice not to have received any money from Reed Smith attorneys in recent year, according to campaign finance reports.
A spokesman for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office declined to comment, and a spokesman for Mill’s legal team did not immediately comment Wednesday afternoon.