As a result of the Bonusgate and capitol corruption scandals a harsh spotlight has been shone on the criminal misdeeds and alleged criminal actions of formerly powerful members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and their staffs. Less noticed, but equally troubling, is a growing list of illegal, unethical and unbecoming actions by members of the commonwealth’s judicial branch.
Unlike the executive and legislative branches, the judicial branch of government operates largely out of sight only invading the public consciousness in times of sensational trials or when corruption is uncovered. Even when corruption is alleged, it is handled behind closed doors and more often than not simply swept under the rug because public attention is focused elsewhere.
That may be about to change. A series of high profile judicial corruption scandals have pierced what Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie-Melvin called the "cloak of public trust" that many Americans place in the judicial system. During remarks following her installation earlier this month as a justice of the high court; Judge Orie-Melvin focused on corruption plaguing the judiciary saying Pennsylvanians are demanding, transparency, accountability and reform.
None of those are things the judicial system does well. The judiciary is covered more by a cloak of secrecy than by a cloak of public trust. The most glaring recent example involves a scheme by two Judges of the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas who accepted $2.6 million in kick-backs to sentence juveniles to unwarranted confinement in detention facilities. Complaints were made to the Judicial Conduct Board which was, to put it mildly, slow and unresponsive. Ultimately the media picked up on the issue and that lead to the resignation and conviction of the two wayward jurists.
In recent days Luzerne County’s bench has again been in the headlines as Judge Michael Toole has been forced to resign for "honest services fraud," which is legalese for having an improper financial relationship to essentially receive kick-backs for legal referrals. He has also been charged with income tax evasion. It is also apparently hazardous to be married to a judge. The former president judge of Perry and Juniata counties, Judge Joseph Rehkamp was arrested several days ago and charged with assaulting his wife. Ironically, Judge Rehkamp now lives in Luzerne County.
Unfortunately, the wave of judicial misconduct crashing across Penn’s Woods is not limited to the Common Pleas level. There is also the matter of Judge Michael Joyce who served on the statewide Superior Court. Judge Joyce, of Erie County, is serving time in prison after having been convicted on federal insurance fraud charges.
The statewide judiciary also suffered a black eye during the infamous pay raise uproar several years ago. The legislature bore the brunt of public anger for having raised its own salaries, but it was behind-the-scenes lobbying by certain members of the appellate courts that brought the issue to the table in the first place. There has since been allegations that judicial involvement in the pay raise process was excessive and untoward, but by and large the black robes escaped any serious consequences as a result of their actions.
During last year’s campaign for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, both the Democratic nominee Jack Panella and the winning Republican nominee Joan Orie-Melvin made corruption an issue. It was obviously not a winning issue for Panella who was successfully attacked by the Orie-Melvin campaign for his role as a member of the Judicial Conduct Board which is widely viewed has having dropped the ball on the Luzerne County matter. Nevertheless, the fact candidates for both parties made judicial conduct a campaign issue speaks to the degree to which corruption in the courts has become a major problem.
It remains to be seen whether or not any serious reform will be forthcoming. Like their counterparts in the legislature there has been a lot of talk by judges and judicial candidates about reform, but little action. They could start by understanding the courts are a co-equal branch of government and thus properly subject to the same scrutiny as the other two branches. For way too long the judicial system has operated behind closed doors setting it above and apart from everyone else. And while the overwhelming majority of judges and justices are good, honorable and hard working jurists, there have been enough bad apples that the time has come for the judiciary to move into the 20th century by making itself more open, transparent, and accountable.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])
Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliati