Scandals involving judges allegedly engaging in favoritism rear up in the Pennsylvania court system every few years, but attorneys who spoke with the Law Weekly said judicial favoritism is not widespread.
“You can’t paint with a broad brush that, just because these situations occasionally arise, that there is some pervasive issue of favoritism in the judiciary,” said Matthew Mangino, a defense attorney and former district attorney for Lawrence County. “There’s a big picture here, and that is that most people who preside over the cases are doing it in a fair and honorable way.”
Throughout July, six former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges were tried for charges stemming from allegations that they fixed tickets of those with whom they had political or personal connections. The six former judges were acquitted on the charges related to the alleged ticket-fixing, but similar cases have cropped up in Pennsylvania for more than 20 years.
In the early 1990s, Allegheny County District Justice Jules Melograne, his tipstaff and a court supervisor were convicted on case-fixing charges.
More recently, in December 2004, Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge Terrence R. Nealon sent an email advising fellow Democrats about how to oppose a voting redistricting plan before his court. Nealon ultimately approved the redistricting plan, but he later admitted that sending the email was a lapse in ethical judgment, and no known disciplinary action was taken.
Also, in 2009, a specially appointed judge found that a Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas judge had been inappropriately assigned to a defamation case that resulted in a $3.5 million verdict.
According to a chart from the Court of Judicial Conduct outlining all sanctions imposed by the court between 1995 and 2013, nine judges, excluding the six involved in the recent Traffic Court case, faced favoritism- and influence-related charges.
Duane Morris attorney Robert L. Byer, a former Commonwealth Court judge, said that, while favoritism has been a recurring problem in Pennsylvania historically, it would be a mistake to conclude, “based upon a couple of isolated examples, that this is the way the entire court system runs.”
“It’s like any human endeavor,” Byer said. “You can have situations where some people do some things for the wrong reasons. It’s unavoidable because our system is not perfect.”
Byer said that he has encountered very little favoritism during his time practicing law, and that there is no indication it is widespread across the state.
One legal expert, however, disagreed with this assertion.
“Pennsylvania has not had a very strong tradition of high judicial rectitude,” said Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr., a trustee professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and ethics expert.
Hazard compared Pennsylvania to other states in which he had worked, including California and Oregon, and pointed to courts in New Jersey, which he said were “sloppy” 50 years ago, but have improved significantly.
“I think Pennsylvania is probably today better than it was, but it’s still not up to that level,” Hazard said. “It’s just part of the tradition, and of course any kind of tradition like that feeds on itself.”
University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor John M. Burkoff said that, like any profession, some are better than others at maintaining ethical norms, but he said he did not think favoritism is widespread in state courts.
“I don’t think most do, but there are some, and that’s a real problem,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s such a strong system-wide, intrinsic problem that it’s something we have to worry about in every case in front of every judge.”
Burkoff said that the state does have a perception problem when it comes to fairness in the courts, and several attorneys who spoke with the Law Weekly echoed this sentiment. But a negative view of the judicial system is a problem nationwide, according to Burkoff.
“I don’t think we have particularly worse judges, and I don’t think we have particularly worse citizens, but many people believe that many judges have a bias and act on it,” Burkoff said.
According to Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Executive Director Lynn Marks, the perception of favoritism is itself a serious problem. Pennsylvania, she said, and particularly Philadelphia, has a perception that judicial hirings are often based on the recommendations of politicians, which is another area of favoritism that has eroded public confidence.
“Perception is extremely important because if people feel like the justice system and judicial decisions are influenced by outside forces, that really is a threat to democracy,” Marks said. “In the area of justice, people often say perception is reality, so it’s very important that the justice system not only be fair, but appear to be fair.”
To address the alleged special treatments from Philadelphia Traffic Court judges, the state General Assembly voted in 2013 to merge the court into the Philadelphia Municipal Court.
In 2009, the state Supreme Court appointed a judge to review how the defamation case in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas had been assigned to Judge Mark A. Ciavarella. The specially appointed judge recommended that the Supreme Court vacate the $3.5 million verdict in the case, saying that Ciavarella and Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Conahan were involved in a “tangled web of interconnected relationships.”
“When it becomes an issue, you need to deal with it directly and transparently,” Byer said, adding that he felt axing the Traffic Court and appointing a special judge to review the Luzerne County defamation case were the correct courses of action in those cases.
Taking action quickly and early will be an important step in ensuring any issues of favoritism are properly addressed, experts agree.
“The hope is that in those cases lawyers and others will feel the necessity to report it and at least the judicial accountability authorities might fire a short across the bow,” Burkoff said.
However, according to attorney Samuel C. Stretton, who represents judges in ethics cases and writes a weekly column for the Law Weekly, district judges should be more involved in the communities they serve, and should be more lenient than common pleas judge when it comes to imposing sentences that could cause personal problems for defendants, such as being fired from their jobs for losing their driver’s licenses. Some might be quick to consider a district court judge’s leniency as favoritism, he said, but that would be a misconception.
“I’m sure that people have a perception that it’s politically corrupt, but that’s partly press-made, partly not understanding the role of these kinds of judges,” Stretton said. “Oftentimes they will give someone a break. It’s not because they know someone, but because that’s their role. It’s a different role than a common pleas judge.”