Justices behaving badly: PA Supreme Court has embarrasing history


By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

Checking in on the state of the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court isn’t for the weak of constitution these days.

That’s thanks to the stunning development from earlier this week, when the state Supreme Court suspended Justice Seamus McCaffery from his duties.

Chief Justice Ron Castille blasted McCaffery in a sharply worded concurring statement, saying his colleague had opened the court to “public ridicule” after forwarding pornographic emails, including a “video of a woman in sexual congress with a snake that is clearly obscene and may violate the Crime Codes Section on Obscenity.”

SHATTERED REPUTATION: Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery has been suspended over allegations he sent inappropriate emails. It’s not the first time a justice has been in hot water, either.

If that phrase alone wasn’t wild enough, Castille suggested McCaffery has the tendencies of a “sociopath,” with a penchant to blame everybody else for problems of his own creation.

Yeah, the state Supreme Court is a big mess these days, thanks largely to the drip, drip, drip nature of Pornogate — the obvious name for the email scandal that has gripped the state for weeks now — and an ongoing feud between Castille and McCaffery.

It’s not a “Law and Order” episode, not yet anyway. Sadly, it’s just part of a rich history of judicial dysfunction for the Keystone State’s highest court.

“Out of the three branches, most people view the judiciary as the moral brake,” said Eric Epstein, coordinator of Rock the Capital, a government reform group. “I think most people think that the judiciary keeps the executive branch and Legislature in check. Unfortunately, they become partner to political shenanigans.”

Those who want to be really discouraged about Pennsylvania’s highest court can read on, as PA Independent — with a big assist from Epstein — looks at a few of the high-profile incidents of justices behaving badly.

Keeping secrets backfires on Rolf Larsen

State Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen didn’t want people to know he was taking medication for anxiety and depression, so he used court employees to obtain the prescription drugs.

Larsen’s treatment didn’t stay private, and his scheme didn’t, either.

A jury found him guilty of charges on conspiring to obtain prescription drugs in 1994. Larsen wouldn’t fade quietly into the night, though. He refused to resign, prompting the Legislature to impeach him.

The state Senate found Larsen guilty of one of seven articles of impeachment — having improper communications. Lawmakers voted to remove him from his post and banned him from holding public office again.

Larsen died earlier this year.

Public staff, politics mixed for Orie Melvin

Larsen was the last sitting Supreme Court justice to be convicted of a crime — until Joan Orie Melvin came along.

A jury found Orie Melvin guilty of corruption charges in February 2013 after she and her sister, Janine Orie, who doubled as an aide, used state-funded court and legislative staff for campaign purposes.

The practice of mixing politics and public resources was common place at one time in Harrisburg, prompting the infamous Bonusgate scandal, the prosecution of which helped propel then Attorney General Tom Corbett to the governor’s office.

The improper mixing of politics and public resources engulfed not two, but three Orie sisters. By the time Orie Melvin and Janine Orie were convicted, former state Sen. Jane Orie had already been sentenced to prison after her conviction on campaign corruption charges.

Among the sisters, Orie Melvin’s conviction was the biggest. Her crimes landed her on Judgepedia’s September list of the Top 5 Examples of Real-Life Judicial Misconduct.

Saylor does ‘really dumb thing’

Current Justice Thomas Saylor’s offense wasn’t nearly as egregious as the ones mentioned above, but it definitely makes one wonder what he was thinking in 2005, when he tried to sneak a Swiss Army-type pocketknife through security at Harrisburg International Airport.

Security had caught the justice with the knife on his key chain, but later found it again when Saylor went through the checkpoint a second time. This time, it was hidden in a shoe in his carry-on luggage. He paid a $750 fine.

“I just wanted to get this matter behind me,” he told the Associated Press. “Really, my only comment is, and I said it at the time, I did a really dumb thing which I obviously regret.”

Cappy defends midnight pay raise he helped negotiate

OK, this one wasn’t even a crime, though some might say defending the infamous 2005 midnight pay raise for lawmakers, judges and other state officials as “courageous” is still pretty bad.

But that’s exactly what former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Cappy did. Making matters worse, he worked behind the scenes negotiating the pay raise plan.

While the Judicial Conduct Board eventually cleared Cappy, lawmakers repealed the pay raise amid harsh public backlash. That didn’t stop voters from sending many of them packing. Even Supreme Court Justice Russell Nigro was denied retention.

‘Hatfields and McCoys’

Now, it’s McCaffery fighting to keep his spot on the bench. He has already apologized for sending the X-rated emails, but he hammered Castille, saying the chief justice was attacking him with a “cooked-up controversy.”

It’s no secret the two judges don’t get along, Epstein said.

SUSPENDED: Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery is just the latest jurist from the state’s highest court to bring unwanted attention to the bench.

“Everybody knows it’s the Hatfields and McCoys with those guys,” he said.

The dysfunction, though, has spread deeper into the bench.

Another jurist, Justice J. Michael Eakin, has alleged McCaffery urged him to coerce Castille to retract public statements about the emails, under the threat he would release inappropriate emails that could embarrass Eakin, too. That — and more past controversy — was also cited in the order suspending McCaffery with pay.

The order states the Judicial Conduct Board will have 30 days to determine whether there is probable cause to file formal misconduct charges against McCaffery.

Justice Debra McCloskey Todd issued a dissenting statement, concerned McCaffery had been suspended “based upon unvetted claims and allegations.”

“Even a justice is entitled to due process,” she wrote.

Yup, it’s an ugly time for the state Supreme Court. While Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts commended the justices for turning the case over to the Judicial Conduct Board, the reform group also lamented the sideshow that’s playing out on a daily basis in newspaper headlines.

“However, we are disappointed with the level of public discourse demonstrated by the Supreme Court,” PMC Executive Director Lynn Marks said. “The Supreme Court has the duty to set the tone of public discourse throughout the judicial system. Pennsylvanians look for leadership from our Supreme Court and should feel confident that their matters are fairly heard and decided based on the facts and the law, not personal animosity.”

Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.