Two Philadelphia Municipal Court judges were suspended Wednesday by the state Supreme Court, hours after a fellow judge admitted in a guilty plea that he reached out to them in an attempt to fix cases.
The judges, Dawn Segal and Joseph O'Neill, will be suspended from hearing cases while their conduct is examined by the state's Judicial Conduct Board, said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille.
Castille said the high court ordered the suspensions, with pay, after former Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters Jr. pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
Waters, 61, a Democrat, pleaded guilty to one count each of mail fraud and wire fraud. He also admitted he had made private calls to two other judges to help out friends in a civil lawsuit and a separate criminal case alleging illegal gun possession.
Judge 1 and Judge 2
The names of the judges called by Waters were not made public in the court documents; they were only identified as Judge 1 and Judge 2. But other court records established that the judges are Segal and O'Neill, and Castille said the high court was confident they were the judges in question.
Neither judge has been charged with any crime, and neither was alleged to have taken money in connection with any case.
Segal and O'Neill could not be reached for comment. A woman who answered Segal's personal cellphone said, "The judge is not available."
In pleading guilty to corruption charges, Waters said he reached out to the two judges in an attempt to fix a pending civil case and a separate gun case.
Castille noted that the state Code of Judicial Conduct bans judges from engaging in what is called ex parte communication - secret conversations with advocates for only one side.
He also noted that the rules require a judge who is aware of wrongdoing by a colleague on the bench to take "appropriate action." He said neither O'Neill nor Segal alerted superiors to Waters' interventions.
Castille said the Judicial Conduct Board would examine the judges' actions. He said that if allegations about them in the Waters' charges proved accurate, both violated the state's ethics rules.
"They will still be judges. But they won't hear any cases," Castille said. "They shouldn't be going into court and hearing cases while this cloud is over their head. Then, we will let the conduct board figure out the actual facts."
If the board finds that a judge has violated ethical rules, it refers the matter to the Court of Judicial Discipline. That court has the power to remove a judge from the bench.
Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin, the court's official liaison with the Philadelphia court system, did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday. Neither did Municipal Court President Judge Marsha Neifield.
Municipal Court, which has 30 judges, is the lower court in the two-tier Philadelphia system that also includes Common Pleas Court, which has 100 judges.
$169,769 a year
Municipal Court judges decide cases involving minor crimes and civil disputes where less than $12,000 is at stake. They also rule whether alleged felonies should go on to full trials in Common Pleas Court. They are paid $169,769 a year.
O'Neill and Segal, like Waters, are Democrats.
O'Neill, a graduate of Widener University Law School, worked for nearly three decades as an attorney before becoming a judge in 2007.
Segal, 54, is a political outsider. She won election in 2010 without the endorsement of the Democratic Party machine.
A graduate of Temple Law School, like Waters, she worked before her election as a private attorney and as a lawyer for the city. She also served as board president of Women Organized Against Rape.