The new liaison between the state Supreme Court and the First Judicial District told The Legal that he wants Philadelphians to run the city’s court system, and that his role is to provide necessary guidance, not micromanagement.
Justice J. Michael Eakin, whose base is the midstate region, is the first non-Philadelphian or suburbanite to serve as liaison justice since the late Justice Ralph Cappy of Allegheny County.
Eakin, who replaced Philadelphia-based Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille as the liaison justice just over a month ago, said "the goal would be to have Philadelphia run Philadelphia" and his role only is to provide guidance as needed.
Eakin has met with the president judges and administrative judges of the FJD’s three courts, the Court of Common Pleas, Municipal Court and Traffic Court, "and advised them my job is not to micromanage them … I want to be kept abreast, not to the point of running the courts. I don’t think that’s my role. My role is to know what’s going on and to keep abreast and participate as is needed," the justice said.
Eakin, who sat down for an interview with The Legal on Friday in his chambers in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, Pa., said that it was an internal matter to the institution as to why the change was made. But he said "it was not a palace coup. Nobody is trying to wrest power from the chief. That just isn’t the way it is."
Eakin said he may not be fully aware of all of the reasons that his colleagues favored the change but the consensus was that change would be helpful.
For his part, Eakin said he has thought it would be helpful for the liaison justice to be based outside of Philadelphia.
"I don’t have any people in Philadelphia," Eakin said. "That’s one of the advantages of being 100 miles away … [not being] subject to the daily rumors and daily speculation and the like."
Philadelphia courts, except for Traffic Court, are running well, and the various courts are in good hands, Eakin said. Nine current and former judges of the Traffic Court were charged by federal prosecutors with ticket-fixing.
"[Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas] Judge [Gary] Glazer [the administrative judge of the Traffic Court] has really impressed me with his handle on the situation," Eakin said, including anticipating that in the wake of the federal indictments and charges by criminal informations that the court was going to need to be staffed with senior magistrate judges from other jurisdictions "so the court wouldn’t grind to a halt."
Eakin said he does not have a position on legislation pending in the state Senate that would start the constitutional amendment process to eliminate the Traffic Court and also to establish a traffic division within the Municipal Court.
While sometimes court leaders might want to call up legislators to make suggestions on lawmaking, such as regarding the future of Traffic Court, Eakin said he could not give too much input on such legislation in order to not prejudge the constitutionality of the legislation if it came before the Supreme Court.
Eakin said his role also will be to be a conduit of information between the FJD and the Supreme Court. He has asked the court leadership to inform him so he can inform the rest of the court "and make sure everybody is on board," Eakin said.
"One of the things that makes my colleagues upset is somebody coming up to them and asking them about something and they know nothing about it. It makes you feel almost slothful that you don’t know about this and you should," Eakin said.
One of the difficulties of having had Castille as the liaison justice is that he has many more duties as the chief justice than the associate justices do, Eakin said.
"It’s difficult to overstate the amount of things the chief justice has to deal with that we don’t have to deal with," Eakin said.
Castille is personally dealing with the realignments of magisterial districts and with all of the Unified Judicial System’s computer projects and "cranking" out one-sixth of all of the court’s cases, Eakin said. The seventh justice, Justice Joan Orie Melvin, is suspended while she is on trial in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on criminal charges of using taxpayer resources for her judicial campaigns.
"The chief is a marine, a decorated war veteran," Eakin said. "Delegation is not him. Asking for help is not in his nature. I admire him for that. But, at the same time, if we can give him help, that’s a positive."
Eakin said he will communicate with the other justices about Philadelphia by email mostly. If one of the justices does not like a recommendation Eakin has made, he or she can put a hold on it, or suggest making a change to Eakin’s recommended course, Eakin said.
Eakin also said he anticipates making a report on the FJD to his other colleagues when they meet in session six times a year. "I’m hopeful my recommendation will be, ‘We won’t need to do anything right now,’" the justice said.
Eakin said he was involved with the first phase of the FJD’s criminal justice reform efforts, including because he is the former district attorney for Cumberland County. But Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, the other Philadelphia-based justice, and Castille worked much more on it, he said.
The changes have led to anecdotal decreases in case delays and the decrease of witness and victim intimidation, Eakin said.
While the idea has been floated for the liaison justice role to be eliminated entirely, Eakin said that Philadelphia remains unique and traditionally has had problems. The tradition of the liaison justice to the FJD, when other judicial districts do not have an official liaison from the high court, should probably be preserved, Eakin said.