So, the spreading ooze from Philly labor leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty’s indictment now touches the state Supreme Court, too often home to the ethically challenged, ever an argument for merit-appointed judges.
Yep, just a few years after two of the court’s seven robed “honorables” (one from each party) resigned in a porn scandal, which happened just after another of its “honorables” resigned following her corruption conviction, now come possible, if not probable, probes of another justice.
The Inquirer reported last week that Doc’s brother, Democratic Justice Kevin Dougherty, is among family members the government says got bennies — in his case, snow shoveling and a week’s work of “construction, repair and painting” at his Northeast Philly home — paid for with allegedly stolen union dough.
The feds charge Doc and five other IBEW Local 98 employees with embezzling more than $600,000 between 2010 and 2016. Everyone has pleaded not guilty.
Justice Dougherty, a former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge, is not charged or even named in the indictment, where, the Inquirer reports, he’s identified as “Family Member #4.” He hasn’t commented. His lawyer says he’s done nothing wrong and has paid for any work done at his house. And maybe that’s so.
Still, almost immediately, partisan cages were rattled.
State Republican Party Chairman Val DiGiorgio called on officialdom — U.S. Attorney, state Attorney General, Judicial Conduct Board — to look more closely at Justice Dougherty to ensure no “fatal ethical taint” precludes him from “the proper administration of justice.”
This is a straight jab gloved in velvet. And maybe just an opening punch.
I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised if Republican legislative mahoffs are gleefully reviewing a menu of options to mess with Dougherty and his court.
After all, GOP leaders still stew (some broil) over losing the court majority in 2015 when three Democrats, including Dougherty, won seats; and stew (and broil) even more over the court’s 2018 outlawing of legislatively drawn congressional maps and ordering new maps favorable to Democrats.
(The state’s U.S. House delegation flipped from 13-5 Republican prior to the court’s action to a 9-9 partisan tie after last year’s midterm elections. It’s currently 9-8 Democratic, with a vacancy due to the resignation last month of GOP U.S. Rep. Tom Marino. A special election to replace him is set May 21.)
But even absent any GOP revenge, a sitting justice linked to a 116-count federal indictment filled with charges of embezzlement, bribery, theft and more, creates a cloud over a court that’s had its share of rain.
“If the reports are accurate, they create very significant problems,” said Widener Law School professor Michael Dimino, who writes on constitutional law and judicial elections. “Public esteem for the courts is absolutely essential,” he said. “Without it, the public has no reason to respect judicial rulings.”
Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and Justice Dougherty, through a court spokesperson, declined my requests for interviews.
I understand allegations aren’t proof. I understand we’re not talking about the stuff of high crimes and misdemeanors (OK, maybe misdemeanors, depending who your brother is).
But this is problematic. Looks suspect. Leaves a bad taste. Adds to the court’s, and the state’s, already woeful rep.
GOP Justice Joan Orie Melvin resigned in 2013, convicted of using judicial staff for campaign work. Democratic Justice Seamus McCaffery resigned in 2014, and Republican Justice Michael Eakin resigned in 2016, both caught up in an email porn scandal triggered by former, now-jailed state AG Kathleen Kane.
The common thread here is lapsed judgment, lapsed ethics, a problem that seems sewn through the cloth of the feds’ extensive indictment.
It doesn’t help that Local 98 under Doc’s reign provided more than $1 million in support of Kevin Dougherty’s 2015 campaign.
He shouldn’t have taken it. Didn’t need it. Even without it, he raised more money than all other candidates. He got more votes than all other candidates. And even with abstaining from certain cases to avoid conflicts of interest, accepting such aid looks fishy.
Not saying he should be judged by the reputation of his brother, or his court, or the often-ugly politics of his city and state. I’m saying the very nature of that backdrop demands a higher standard.
Appearance, especially in the judiciary, matters. Suspect alliances or actions by those who judge others taint the promise of equal justice under law.
That promise, already fragile, becomes more shaky with each episode of questionable judicial behavior.
Some underpinning repairs are in order. An outright ban on gifts to judges. And ending Pennsylvania’s status as one of only a few states picking judges at all levels through partisan elections.