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Stu Bykofsky | Hear ye, hear ye, the judge is on trial

THIS IS THE case of Philadelphia public opinion versus the Hon. Willis W. Berry Jr., judge in the Court of Common Pleas - and a candidate for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Supreme Court candidate Willis Berry Jr.
Supreme Court candidate Willis Berry Jr.Read more

THIS IS THE case of Philadelphia public opinion versus the Hon. Willis W. Berry Jr., judge in the Court of Common Pleas - and a candidate for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Elected to the bench in 1995 and this year hoping to become a Supreme, Berry is facing a nasty accusation delivered last Sunday by the Inquirer's Nancy Phillips.

According to her reporting, including L&I records, interviews with neighbors and in-person visits, the judge is a slumlord. Not just with one dilapidated property, but with a fistful scattered around the city.

While Phillips reported the judge is a candidate for the state's highest court, she didn't mention the recommendation given him by the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

The PBA found Berry "not recommended." In a summary, the PBA cited his "lack of experience in areas of the law outside of criminal law, lack of administrative experience," adding that Berry "has not participated in bar-related functions, teaching, writing or his court's efforts to improve the justice system."

The PBA didn't even know he was an accused slumlord when it delivered its verdict. The voters get their chance on May 15.

A judge having real-estate holdings may not be all that unusual. Common Pleas Judge Frank Palumbo was the landlord for, of all things, a Center City strip club or two. The Code of Judicial Conduct allows a judge to have outside investments.

What is new here is the disgraceful condition of some of Berry's property, that he oversaw the business from his court office using court employees, and that he broke the law when he bought some properties using a false name, it was reported.

I'll say one good thing about the judge, though. When reporter Phillips called to ask about the properties, Berry not only took her call, he actually took her on a tour of some of the properties. The highlight was the unoccupied apartment where they found a dead mouse in the kitchen.

"Just be cool," Berry cautioned Phillips.

She was.

Also cool were a couple of the judge's staffers who reportedly helped him conduct his real-estate affairs from his judicial office, which is an apparent ethical violation. There is some divided opinion on this issue, but not on the part of lawyer Samuel C. Stretton, a leading expert on ethics.

"You can't use your judicial staff to do your personal business," he said.

Did I mention Stretton is an adviser to Berry's campaign?

It's so . . . Philadelphia.

Berry used his court staff to collect rent, make repairs and process paperwork, Phillips reported.

Berry listed his judicial office and phone number on paperwork. Secretary Carolyn Fleming did the paperwork and judicial aide Henry Reddy did the repairs, it was reported.

Neither returned Phillips' calls.

Nor did they return mine.

Berry is not running in the May 15 primary in a vacuum. A Democrat, he is running for one of the two slots made available by recent vacancies on the high court.

The other Democratic candidates are Debra Todd, of Butler County, and two Philadelphians - C. Darnell Jones II and Seamus McCaffery. The PBA rated Todd and Jones "highly recommended" and McCaffery "recommended."

In 1995, the Philadelphia Bar Association gave Berry a "recommended" rating for Common Pleas.

Berry didn't respond to my phone calls.

I just wanted to ask him if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was the right place for accused slumlords. *

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