After weeks of turmoil and recrimination, Monday's announcement that Seamus McCaffery would step down from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is an important move toward restoring the credibility of a court badly shaken by internal intrigue and allegations of impropriety.
That is the view of many lawyers who practice before the court, who say further infighting would have severely hampered the court's ability to function.
Nancy Winkelman, a partner at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis L.L.P. who focuses her practice on state and federal appellate courts, said that allegations swirling around McCaffery had damaged the court's image and that his departure would help.
"This is the best possible outcome at this point," Winkelman said. "Right now, the goal is to restore public confidence in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and that is of the utmost urgency. It is important to litigants, to parties, and to the citizens of the commonwealth. The court's reputation has taken a hit."
On that point, the city's legal establishment was nearly unanimous. The prospect of a protracted struggle over whether McCaffery should be removed from the bench might have caused even more damage, several lawyers said Monday.
"In light of today's announcement, we hope this matter can now be put behind us so that the court can move forward with its work dispensing justice, and public confidence in the judiciary and the rule of law can be preserved," Philadelphia Bar chancellor William Fedullo said in a statement.
Last week, the state Supreme Court suspended McCaffery over a range of alleged ethics infractions, including his sending pornographic e-mails and contacting a Philadelphia Traffic Court judge about a ticket his wife received.
The court also said McCaffery "may have acted in his official capacity" to authorize his wife to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in referral fees from personal-injury law firms while she served as his administrative assistant, a court position.
William Lamb, a former Supreme Court justice who now practices as an appellate lawyer with the firm of Lamb McErlane in West Chester, said the scandal likely would trigger renewed discussion about changing from Pennsylvania's system of electing judges to an appointed judiciary.
There might be some benefit in retaining elected judges on county courts, the trial level in Pennsylvania, he said, but some method for appointing appellate-level judges would enhance the judicial system's overall credibility.
Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which has been pushing for appointed judges in Pennsylvania, called on the legislature to respond by taking up the issue once more.
"This is just the first step in restoring public confidence in the judiciary," Marks said. "Judges should be chosen based on their qualifications, history of good personal and professional judgment, and reputation for integrity rather than their ability to raise campaign cash or activate political allies."
McCaffery's decision to leave the court averted what could have been months of infighting.
McCaffery had accused Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille of scheming to release damaging information about him, and Castille had accused McCaffery of ethics improprieties and potentially breaking the law, calling him a sociopath.
For the court, legal observers say, there may be a need for a time of recovery, both in terms of its public image and to bolster an atmosphere of collegiality.
"Collegiality is the most important thing after a crisis," said Sandra Schultz Newman, a retired state Supreme Court justice who knows something about joining a fractured court. Now a mediator in Conshohocken, Newman was first elected to the high court in 1995 after Justice Rolf Larsen became the first Supreme Court jurist in the state to be impeached and convicted by the legislature.
Larsen had been suspended a year earlier after he was convicted of obtaining prescription psychiatric drugs in the names of his employees to hide a history of mental illness.
Newman said she felt it was crucial at a time of such turmoil that the court's remaining justices be seen publicly as working together.
After the Larsen controversy, she said: "We would all go to a little Italian restaurant for dinners together. People could see us laughing and having fun. That was important."