Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor. Photo Credit: Jeremy Drey

Holding that the Court of Judicial Discipline has no duty to base sanctions on previous decisions in similar cases, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld the removal of suspended Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Angeles Roca and suspended Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Dawn Segal from office for engaging in ex parte contact with former Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters Jr.

In separate Nov. 22 opinions, the court ruled 5-1 to uphold the CJD’s decisions in both cases. Justice Kevin M. Dougherty did not participate in either case.

Segal’s and Roca’s cases were consolidated at oral argument on the limited issue of whether the CJD is bound by stare decisis.

The court tackled that issue mainly in its opinion in Roca’s case, but applied its reasoning in Segal’s case as well, with Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor writing for the majority in both.

Saylor began the analysis of the stare decisis question by noting that Pennsylvania case law has defined the doctrine as pertaining to legal holdings and not individual sentences.

Instead, Saylor said, what Segal and Roca were really arguing for was a requirement that the CJD engage in a “comparative proportionality” analysis so that its sanctions remain in line with those imposed in previous cases with similar underlying facts. Such a requirement does not exist in the state constitution nor any other legal authority, however, Saylor said.

Saylor reasoned that no two judicial discipline cases are exactly alike and the CJD has broad discretion to tailor sanctions to each unique case.

Furthermore, Saylor said, it’s entirely reasonable that judges who commit misconduct similar to what other judges have previously been disciplined for would be hit with harsher sanctions—they should already have been on notice that their conduct was improper.

“Therefore, the CJD’s view of the appropriate sanction for a particular type of misconduct may be adjusted as time and experience help to shape that tribunal’s understanding of the measures which are necessary to achieve its institutional purposes as delineated above,” Saylor said in Roca’s case. “Thus, while the CJD is certainly capable of consulting prior decisions as a guide to the proper discipline for a given jurist, neither the Pennsylvania Constitution nor any other legal authority which has been brought to our attention requires it to impose sanctions which are proportional to the punishment meted out in earlier cases involving similar misconduct.”

Saylor cited the Roca opinion’s analysis in rejecting Segal’s stare decisis argument.

Turning to the ex-judges’ other arguments on appeal, Saylor said the high court’s standard of review in appeals from CJD rulings centers on determining whether the sanctions imposed were lawful. In both cases, the majority found that they were.

Saylor rejected Roca’s argument that the high court’s 2014 decision in In re Magisterial District Judge Bruno, in which it declared its own power to suspend judges, gave the justices “‘parallel jurisdiction with full rights to intervene’” in judicial conduct matters and to exercise de novo review of CJD decisions.

“Appellant reads Bruno as implying that, where the integrity of the judicial system demands it, this court can assert its supervisory power so as to disregard the standard of review set forth in Article V, Section 18(c)(2). Such a precept cannot reasonably be derived from Bruno,” Saylor said. “Nothing in Bruno suggests that this court’s supervisory responsibilities can justify acting contrary to, overriding, or essentially re-writing the text of the constitution. Rather, Bruno explained that the CJD’s suspension powers, as set forth in the constitution, are not made to be exclusive.”

Saylor was joined in the result in both cases by Justices Max Baer, David N. Wecht, Sallie Updyke Mundy and Debra Todd.

Todd issued a concurring and dissenting opinion in Roca’s case, disagreeing only with the majority’s holding that the Supreme Court has the authority to review whether a CJD decision was “warranted by the record.” Todd said she worried allowing such a standard of review would open the door to the Supreme Court substituting its judgment for that of the CJD.

Saylor specifically addressed these concerns in his majority opinion, responding that “(a) this court does not substitute its concept of the appropriate penalty for that chosen by the CJD; and (b) an unwarranted-by-the-record penalty is limited to one which is completely out of proportion to the underlying misconduct.”

Justice Christine L. Donohue dissented fully in both cases.

In her 26-page dissenting opinion in Roca’s case, Donohue argued that absolving the CJD of any duty to render discipline consistent with previous cases will lead to arbitrary decisions and reduce the Supreme Court’s standard of review “to nothing more than a cross-reference to confirm that the sanction imposed is one mentioned in Article V, Section 18(b)(5).”

With its rulings in the Roca and Segal cases, Donohue said, “the majority, without explanation, abrogates a foundational precept of our common law system of jurisprudence and, in my view, interprets Article V, Section 18 in a way that the citizens of this commonwealth never intended.”

Saylor also specifically answered these arguments, saying the majority “disagree[s] with the dissent’s effort to transform the doctrine of stare decisis into a requirement of comparative-proportionality review in regard to judicial discipline” and disputing Donohue’s claim that such a review is required under common law.

The Court of Judicial Discipline removed Segal and Roca from the bench last December and barred them from holding public office in the future.

The decisions came after Roca and Segal were found earlier in 2016 to have violated the state constitution and the Code of Judicial Conduct by engaging in ex parte contact with Waters, who was later charged criminally and sentenced to 24 months in prison for fixing cases of political donors.

In both Dec. 16, 2016, opinions, CJD President Judge Jack A. Panella found that Roca and Segal willfully participated in the ex parte contact with Waters and discussed influencing the outcome of cases.

Both opinions also concluded by saying that “when it comes to corrupt acts and the derogation of a fair and just judicial process, a judge must have ‘the willingness to stand up for what was right and buck a corrupt tide.’”

In her Nov. 22 dissenting opinion in Segal’s case, Donohue took issue with the fact that, while Segal’s and Roca’s conduct differed, the CJD “imposed the same sanction (permanent removal from judicial office) while employing substantially identical language in its two written opinions and made no attempt to adhere to the doctrine of stare decisis.”

Roca’s attorney, Samuel C. Stretton of West Chester, and Segal’s attorney, Stuart L. Haimowitz of Philadelphia, could not immediately be reached for comment Nov. 22.

Robert A. Graci, the Judicial Conduct Board’s chief counsel, said, “We’re happy with the result reached by the court interpreting the provision of the constitution dealing with its review of the lawfulness of the sanctions imposed by the Court of Judicial Discipline. The clear majority rejected the argument, as the board urged, that the court’s earlier decision in Bruno had somehow rewritten the constitution.”