The replacement of Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille as the liaison justice to the First Judicial District with Justice J. Michael Eakin apparently was the result of dissatisfaction with the chief justice making decisions about the management of the Philadelphia court system on his own without consulting his fellow justices, several court observers told The Legal on Thursday.
Those issues included those stemming from the construction of a new Family Court facility, including the FJD’s recently-settled lawsuit over alleged legal malpractice in connection with the project, and about the judiciary’s response to the federal investigation into alleged ticket-fixing at the Traffic Court.
Castille had remained liaison justice in the last five years even after becoming chief justice and even though Justice Seamus P. McCaffery was said by many in the legal community to have openly wanted the job since his election.
In contrast to the speculation that Castille’s replacement was made only over the public release of a report on alleged ticket-fixing in the Philadelphia Traffic Court, including a passage regarding McCaffery meeting with an administrator on the same day his wife’s case was being heard in court, several legal insiders said that the ire over the report was just the last straw.
McCaffery said in an interview with consultancy Chadwick Associates, who authored the report, that he was asking for an out-of-county judge to hear his wife’s case.
Castille declined a request for an interview with The Legal, as did Eakin. McCaffery did not respond to a request for comment.
In another development, several of the FJD’s leaders said that Eakin has advised them that he is not planning a change of course from some of the projects instituted under Castille’s watch.
One judicial insider, who asked not to be named, said that Eakin has expressed confidence in the reform being undertaken by Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Gary Glazer, who was appointed as the administrative judge over the Traffic Court in the wake of a still ongoing federal investigation into that minor court. The insider said that Glazer has been advised he is going to continue on.
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge John W. Herron, the administrative judge of the trial division, which encompasses criminal and civil cases, said Eakin “complimented the FJD on the status of our program and our operations and said that he anticipated no changes.”
Herron and Glazer were Castille appointees subject to the approval of the entire Supreme Court.
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe, who was elected by her peers, said that Eakin “has told us” his immediate plan is to not move people around.
Dembe said that she and others had heard that the Supreme Court was contemplating making a change in the liaison justice.
“He’s a very open and likeable gentleman,” Dembe said of Eakin. “My experience has always been he says what he means so you don’t have to do a lot of reading of tea leaves.”
Herron described Eakin as a “wonderful justice, easy to work with, with a long history and background in criminal justice matters and long service in the judiciary at the highest levels.”
On the civil side, Herron said he and Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Arnold L. New are working hard to solidify changes in mass torts. The inventory has been reduced, and there are now sufficient judicial resources, Herron said.
The civil program has been restructured so that New’s oversight of the Complex Litigation Center will no longer involve non-jury civil cases and appeals from arbitrations. Eventually those cases will be shifted to Judge Idee Fox, Herron said.
Herron also said that he expects by mid-February to be able to forward data to an academic who is going to develop new bail guidelines for the FJD to allow prediction on the likelihood that defendants will fail to appear or will recommit crimes.
The Administrative Governing Board, made up of the president and administrative judges of all three courts, have agreed to further increase the compensation for private criminal defense attorneys taking death-penalty cases, Herron said. For cases that take more than one week of trial, lawyers will now be compensated $400 per day for every day of trial beyond a week, he said. The AGB previously increased the compensation to $10,000. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over a pending constitutional challenge to the compensation for criminal defense attorneys.
The FJD also is going to reduce staff positions by 35, Herron said, because of budget constraints. Herron said Eakin expressed support for several other court plans for this year.
Attorney Daniel McCaffery, who ran unsuccessfully for Philadelphia district attorney in 2009 and who is the brother of Justice McCaffery, said, “I don’t think the liaison justice is going to have any effect … on reforming the Philadelphia court system.”
Addressing criminal justice changes will be “full steam ahead. I think the system is going to continue to get better,” McCaffery said.
“I think the court is really trying to focus on more openness and transparency,” McCaffery said of the change in leadership.
One court observer who did not want to be named said that one positive aspect of having Eakin be the liaison justice is that he can make decisions without being tied into politics, including the ongoing battle between Justice McCaffery and Castille, and that Eakin can be more objective because he is not from Philadelphia and dealing with a lot of old friends.
Eakin and Castille, for their parts, said in a jointly released statement that the change would allow Castille to spend more time on his duties leading the statewide Unified Judicial System.
Eakin said in the statement that he would be working closely with the chief justice, other colleagues on the Supreme Court as well as judges and staff in the FJD to continue reform efforts undertaken on Castille’s watch.
“The chief justice’s day-to-day responsibilities are immense and include jurisprudential and administrative leadership of the entire Unified Judicial System,” Eakin’s statement said. “At no time in court history has any chief justice been burdened by so many statewide duties and the significant work that overseeing Philadelphia court reforms requires.”
“I have served as liaison justice to Philadelphia’s courts since 2007 and am proud of the accomplishments achieved there,” Castille said in the statement. “But every prudent organization plans for continuity in its management. Justice Eakin’s appointment helps to achieve that objective and allows me to continue to lead the Unified Judicial System as it faces numerous significant administrative and jurisprudential issues, including obtaining an adequate budget and other statewide reforms.”
Eakin is about to leave on vacation.