A Law Unto Themselves

Member Group : Democracy Raising PA

Just in time for next year’s retention election for judges statewide, the leader of the state’s judicial system, Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille, is providing evidence that our judiciary needs a dose of voter reality.

The Code of Conduct for the Employees of the [PA] Unified Judicial System is unequivocal: "Employees of the Unified Judicial System shall not solicit, accept or agree to accept anything of value from any person or entity doing or seeking to do business with, or having an interest in a matter before, the court or court-related entity by which they are employed…"

The American Bar Association’s Model Code of Judicial Conduct says: "A judge shall not accept any gifts, loans, bequests, benefits, or other things of value, if acceptance is prohibited by law or would appear to a reasonable person to undermine the judge’s independence, integrity, or impartiality."

There are a few exceptions (gifts from family members, for example), but none allows what Castille has accepted and apparently intends to continue accepting as long as he is on the bench. On November 21, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Castille has allowed attorneys and law firms that regularly appear before him at the Supreme Court to give him gifts worth thousands of dollars, a practice that raises the eyebrows of any "reasonable person."
Working for justice and prudence in our courts is worth $10 to me!

Last year, for the third consecutive year, Saul Ewing LLC, a Philadelphia law firm, paid for Castille and his wife to attend the Pennsylvania Society event at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. (The annual event is taking place as you read this.) Here’s the full Nov. 21 Inquirer story: Castille is accepting of litigants’ gifts, trips. This conduct even attracted the attention of The New York Times: Untenable Judicial ethics, Nov. 27, as well as the Inquirer: Appearances matter, Nov. 24.

Some have excused this conduct by observing that there appears to be no pattern of favoritism in Castille’s rulings. That is far from clear, however. The seven-member court does not need to rule unanimously on cases. This gives Castille the opportunity to avoid conspicuous favoritism in cases where he is certain that other justices will vote in favor of his benefactors’ clients.

Some say that disclosing gifts is enough to satisfy a reasonable person, and the court’s rules require disclosure of gifts of $250 or more. Yet there is no way to know whether all gifts are disclosed or that the disclosure accurately describes the value of the gifts received. The Nov. 21 Inquirer article describes an instance in which Castille reported the value of a free ticket to a fundraiser as $500 when the other reports valued the tickets at $1,000.
So how does Castille get away with this? The PA Supreme Court decided that bans on gifts don’t apply to state and county judges.

But wait! There’s More!

This latest revelation comes on top of Castille paying $1.1 million to settle claims over the still non-existent Philadelphia Family Court Building for which he already approved $12 million for the developer and others. The deal has attracted the attention of federal investigators, and the investigation is ongoing. Here’s an Inquirer editorial from Oct. 29: Paid to go away.
Working for justice and prudence in our courts is worth $10 to me!

But Wait! There’s Even More!

As if that’s not enough, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Sunday, Nov. 28, reported that Supreme Court justices are charging taxpayers to lease luxury cars and pay the insurance. Critics: Judges’ luxury cars slap at taxpayers. No other state that borders PA permits judges to lease vehicles at taxpayer expense. One justice, Max Baer, leases his car from his brother.
Here’s how the Delaware County Daily Times sees it: Judges’ auto allotments driving state deficit, Dec. 1.

And just to stay sane, here’s how Pittsburgh cartoonist Tim Hartman sees it:


Working for justice and prudence in our courts is worth $10 to me!
As always, it’s important to remember that these problems have solutions. Nearly every other state does government better than PA, but our elected officials refuse to lead the way on matters of public integrity, providing value for taxes and earning the confidence of citizens. That’s why we believe it’s time to "let the people decide" whether and how to improve their government at a Constitution convention.


What are your local judges and bar association doing to solve these problems?
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