Making a “veiled threat” to a defendant’s attorney and filling an opinion with “gratuitous” and “denigrating comments” was just some of the conduct that the Pennsylvania Superior Court pointed to in removing an Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas judge from a criminal case that the judge allegedly failed to properly handle.
The Superior Court said Allegheny County Judge Donna Jo McDaniel failed to follow the appellate court’s instructions when the case was initially remanded in 2016, and instead violated the defendant’s constitutional rights by failing to properly re-sentence him.
A secretary at the judge’s chambers said McDaniel had no comment about the Superior Court’s ruling.
“Because the trial court continually refuses to follow mandates from Superior Court that require a sentencing hearing that meets statutory and constitutional requirements, Superior Court has had to remand several cases multiple times,” Superior Court Judge Alice Beck Dubow, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, said. “This has resulted in extensive deployment of judicial resources to review, analyze, and rectify the court’s deficient sentencing hearings. We must now provide a substantial remedy.”
That remedy, outlined in the opinion the Superior Court issued Wednesday in Commonwealth v. McCauley, entailed vacating the defendant’s sentence, granting the defendant’s motion to recuse McDaniel and remanding the case to Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey Manning so it could be reassigned to another judge.
McDaniel became a judge in 1985 and served as Allegheny’s president judge from 2008 until 2013.
The underlying case involves a man who was sentenced in 2014 to 20 to 40 years after being convicted of sexual abuse of a minor under 13. After the defendant, Anthony McCauley, challenged the legality of imposing a mandatory minimum sentence, the Superior Court affirmed the conviction, but vacated the sentence.
According to Dubow, the prior Superior Court panel remanded the case for further review. The instructions, according to Dubow, were that if McCauley’s sentence had not been based on the mandatory minimum statute, which has been struck down as unconstitutional, then McDaniel could re-impose the same sentence, but if McDaniel had based the sentence on the mandatory minimum statute, she would then need to re-sentence him.
Dubow said McDaniel did neither, and instead conducted a “brief and inadequate resentencing hearing,” which spurred the latest appeal.
According to Dubow, this was not the first case that was remanded to McDaniel because of sentencing problems stemming from a case involving a sex offender. Dubow noted that the court also reversed her sentences in the cases Commonwealth v. Bernal in 2016 and Commonwealth v. A.S. in 2017.
In both cases, Dubow said, the Superior Court included footnotes that said the appellate court was “troubled with the trial judge’s biased decision-making process and inability to impose individualized sentences for sex offenders.”
According to Dubow, that history provided context for the appellate court’s determination that McDaniel “demonstrated bias and personal animus against [McCauley's] counsel and the Public Defender’s Office.”
In McCauley’s case, that took the form of making “gratuitous comments denigrating” McCauley’s counsel and the Public Defender’s Office, as well as “disparag[ing]” defense counsel and accusing the defense of having been part of a coordinate effort with attorneys from Bernal and A.S. to attack her sentencing decisions, Dubow said. Dubow also said the Superior Court was troubled by McDaniel’s sarcasm, which she said was “disrespectful to [McCauley], counsel, and the seriousness of the sentencing process.”
“The trial court’s animus and hostility to appellant’s counsel and the Public Defender’s Office appears to be deep, unwavering, and demonstrates an unjustified bias,” Dubow said.
Neither the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, nor the Allegheny County Office of the Public Defender returned a call seeking comment. Manning also did not return a call seeking comment Thursday morning.