The state Judicial Conduct Board has launched an investigation into Philadelphia Family Court Judge Lyris F. Younge’s handling of cases, her lawyer confirmed Wednesday, prompted by a series of articles in The Legal Intelligencer exposing due process violations committed by Younge.
West Chester-based legal ethics attorney Samuel Stretton, who represents lawyers and judges in disciplinary matters, said he was retained by Younge after the first article was published. Stretton said he learned of the JCB investigation by calling the agency.
This news comes a few days after the state Superior Court issued a stern ruling reversing Younge’s decision to hold a child in foster care to force a confession of alleged child abuse out of the parents.
“Because of the articles and the high publicity there’s an investigation,” Stretton said. “I’m providing information [to the JCB] to demonstrate that the articles and conclusions set forth are incorrect. She’s actually doing an incredible job with an extremely difficult case load that was handed to her two-and-a-half years ago when she was elected to the bench.”
Stretton, who writes an ethics column for The Legal’s sibling publication, the Pennsylvania Law Weekly, said there are currently no charges filed against Younge.
In addition to her history of due process violations, as evidenced by Superior Court rulings overturning her decisions, The Legal reported that Younge had more appeals of her decisions than any of her peers in the Family Court’s dependency unit, which primarily deals with adoption and foster care.
Stretton argued that because Younge inherited a large number of cases from the judge she replaced, she necessarily had a higher number appeals than her peers. Stretton also complained that Younge has received “no support” from Family Court administration.
“She’s not a bad judge, and it’s upsetting that she’s getting no support at all from the Family Court administration,” Stretton said. “They put her in this predicament with a difficult case load.”
The board’s chief counsel, Robert Graci, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. A spokesperson for the Philadelphia court system declined to comment.
The JCB is a reactive body and relies solely on citizen complaints or news coverage to learn about potentially unethical judges. It is unclear how much progress the board has made in its investigation or what specifically regarding Younge’s conduct it is looking into at this time.
According to The Legal’s analysis, of the nearly 80 closed appeals from Younge’s cases, eight, or 10 percent, resulted in reversals. Four of those were for due process violations. The Superior Court’s May 4 ruling in which Judge Anne E. Lazarus admonished Younge for holding the child in foster care in an attempt to force the parents to confess to abuse marked the fifth.
Richard Bost, a family lawyer and former chairman of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s family law section, praised that ruling.
“I am pleased that the Superior Court has stepped in, and share Judge Lazarus’ suggestion that Younge should recuse herself from this case in the future, but in my opinion this case illustrates the problem of selecting judges,” Bost said. ”Judge Younge was rated ‘not recommended’ when she ran three years ago and her actions on the bench certainly support this.”
He added, “In the 26 years that I’ve practiced it’s been one of the most critical decisions I’ve seen that directly criticizes a judge for her actions,” Bost said.
Bost also said that family court proceedings being nonpublic, with the exception of domestic relations cases, can encourage bad behavior from judges.
“What happens in these courtrooms that are closed is that judges, at least in my opinion … individual judges can act like tyrants,” he said.