Soon all judges in Pennsylvania will be required to take 12 credit hours of continuing judicial education each year, including a minimum of three hours in ethics instruction.
The recent mandate from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court marks the first time that more than 600 judges in Pennsylvania courts will be required to have ongoing legal education, similar to the 12 credit hours of training a year now required for lawyers.
On Tuesday, Duquesne University announced that law alum and Philadelphia trial lawyer Thomas R. Kline will donate $7.5 million to establish a center at Duquesne to work with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and Pennsylvania's law schools to design a core curriculum with four of the 12 required credit hours to come from offerings established by the new center and the AOPC.
"This is a huge deal," said Kenneth Gormley, president of Duquesne University, who along with Duquesne law dean Maureen Lally-Green reached out to Pennsylvania's law school deans for help and expertise. "They were all extremely enthusiastic and very supportive."
The classes will be free and taught without pay by law faculty as a public service as well as by experts in science, psychology, health sciences, and ethics. "We're envisioning it going beyond the law schools to the universities themselves," Gormley said.
Duquesne announced the $7.5 million donation, the largest individual gift ever to the law school, at a briefing at the private Catholic university in Pittsburgh.
"I am a trial lawyer who has spent my entire career in the courtrooms of Pennsylvania, and I firmly believe that this is an investment in the high quality of justice," Kline said in an interview. "This is my way of trying to further advance the courts, and further advance justice in our commonwealth."
Kline, cofounder of the firm Kline & Specter P.C., has made legal education a priority before.
In September 2014, he gave Drexel University law school $50 million to fund scholarships, add faculty, and expand the law school's trial-advocacy program, which provides training for lawyers who plan to focus on courtroom practice. In recognition of that gift, the law school is named the Thomas R. Kline School of Law.
The idea for the contribution to Duquesne emerged from discussions with Gormley, previously the law school dean. "It's a unique concept that will be a model for judicial education throughout the country, which draws upon the resources of all the law schools in Pennsylvania funneled through one center that will coordinate and establish the core programming for what is now mandatory judicial education in our commonwealth," Kline said.
Deborah R. Gross, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, said that the donation was "truly remarkable" and that it was "wonderful that somebody has such a passion and wants to educate."
"The benefit of a continuing legal education is what you get out of it," she said. "Hopefully, the courses will be ones that will be helpful." The Philadelphia Bar Association has applied to be one of the providers of courses.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced in December the new continuing judicial education requirements for judges serving the Supreme, Commonwealth, Superior, and Common Pleas courts, Philadelphia Municipal Court, and certified senior judges.
Jurists will be required to earn a minimum of three hours in judicial ethics and nine hours in judicial practice and related topics each year.
The court order established a board of judges made up of representatives of the various courts, who will not be compensated, and will make accreditation decisions, grant waivers and deferrals, and hear noncompliance appeals. Judges who are noncompliant will be notified and given an opportunity to earn the required hours. "After this grace period, judges who remain noncompliant will be referred to the Judicial Conduct Board for its consideration."
The court said the new requirements had been under consideration for a year.
Pennsylvania's judiciary has a history of misconduct. Even the state's highest court has been in turmoil.
In June 2013, Philadelphia Traffic Court was abolished after there were federal indictments against nine current and former judges in a ticket-fixing scandal.
Also in 2013, former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin of Pittsburgh was convicted on campaign corruption charges.
Two other Supreme Court justices — Seamus P. McCaffery and J. Michael Eakin — resigned in 2014 and 2016, respectively, after sending or receiving emails containing pornography or other offensive communications. Two Municipal Court judges, Joseph Waters Jr. and Joseph O'Neill, pleaded guilty in recent years to federal charges connected to a case-fixing scheme.
"Our goal is to ensure that judicial officers in Pennsylvania have the requisite skills and knowledge to fulfill their judicial responsibilities with integrity, adherence to the rule of law, and the highest standards of ethical behavior," said Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor, in announcing the partnership with Duquesne, the Pennsylvania courts, and the law schools.