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Wolf calls for Eakin to resign

Gov. Wolf called on Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin to resign Saturday, hours after The Inquirer reported that the justice was part of a ploy to install a new appointee to the judicial disciplinary tribunal expected to decide his fate in the pornographic email scandal.

Gov. Wolf called on Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin to resign Saturday, hours after The Inquirer reported that the justice was part of a ploy to install a new appointee to the judicial disciplinary tribunal expected to decide his fate in the pornographic email scandal.

"This process is absurd," Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said. "Justice Eakin's behavior is reprehensible and beyond unbecoming of an individual, let alone a Supreme Court justice.

"Justice Eakin should resign," Sheridan said. "The people of Pennsylvania deserve better."

Wolf's call for Eakin to step down came after Chief Justice Thomas Saylor on Saturday abruptly halted the high court's bid to nominate Karen Snider, a former secretary of the state Department of Public Welfare, to the Court of Judicial Discipline. Within days, the court is expected to take up the matter of whether Eakin violated judicial rules by sending or receiving several dozen emails that contained offensive content.

The Inquirer reported earlier in the day that Saylor and Eakin were backing Snider so she could support Eakin in the disciplinary process. The Inquirer also disclosed that Eakin had traded emails with friends in which he discussed plans to visit strip clubs and made racy comments about his female judicial aides.

In his statement Saturday, Saylor called Snider "a candidate with excellent credentials," but said several justices were concerned because Eakin had participated in the vote to nominate her to the Court of Judicial Discipline, which will decide his fate in the email scandal.

"I shared those concerns and do not believe Justice Eakin should participate in the decision," Saylor said.

Because Snider would have been eligible to vote on Eakin's case, Saylor said, "I made the decision to withdraw Ms. Snider's name and restart the nomination process."

Asked Friday whether Eakin had participated in the vote, a spokesman for the court refused to answer, saying it was an "internal matter."

Saylor confirmed in his statement that Eakin had voted. The chief justice, who has considerable power over the court, was silent on why he had permitted Eakin to do so. Saylor's statement did not reveal how Eakin or any other justice had voted.

The high court's about-face followed an Inquirer report that Saylor and Eakin were backing a plan to install a new member on the disciplinary court in a bid to assist Eakin.

There are two vacancies on the eight-member judicial tribunal. The Supreme Court has the authority to fill one; Wolf has the power to appoint the other.

On Friday, Wolf's spokesman Sheridan said the governor had not decided whether to nominate anyone soon. But he decried any effort to rig the result.

"Any political maneuvering to undermine a thorough and efficient review of Justice Eakin's reprehensible conduct is disgusting," Sheridan said.

Sources said Snider's nomination had the backing of Saylor, Eakin and Justice Max Baer. Justices Debra Todd and Correale F. Stevens opposed the nomination, they said.

Snider, of Cumberland County, did not return a call or respond to an email Saturday night.

On Friday, she confirmed that she had agreed to serve on the panel. Snider, now president of a management consulting firm, said she did not know Eakin and declined to elaborate.

William Costopoulos, one of Eakin's lawyers, declined to comment on the judicial court issues, beyond saying that he hoped the investigation would reach a conclusion quickly.

Eakin did not respond to a message left with his chambers in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County.

Republicans are in the majority on the five-member Supreme Court. Saylor, Eakin, and Correale Stevens are Republicans. Debra Todd and Max Baer are Democrats.

Efforts to reach the justices were unsuccessful.

Eakin is expected to face a hearing before the Court of Judicial Discipline before the end of the year. Its options range from clearing him of any ethics violations to reprimanding him to removing him.

Eakin, 66, a former district attorney in Cumberland County, has served on the court since 2002. He has apologized for the troubling emails captured on state computer servers, saying they did not reflect his true character.

He became newly enmeshed in the scandal over the swapping of pornographic and otherwise offensive email on state computers when state Attorney General Kathleen Kane raised the issue this fall.

She did so after Eakin joined his colleagues on the high court in voting to suspend her law license, citing allegations in the criminal case she faces. Wolf has also called for her resignation.

Kane, a Democrat, made public dozens of disturbing Eakin emails, throwing into question the conclusions of past investigations that had deemed his messages "unremarkable," as a Supreme Court expert put it last year, or "mildly pornographic," in the phrasing of the Judicial Conduct Board.

Stung by Kane's criticism, the Supreme Court and the state Judicial Conduct Board launched new investigations of the emails this year.

In clearing Eakin last year, the Judicial Conduct Board noted that he made a "self-report" in response to allegations that he been involved in the offensive emails. The board praised him for being "cooperative and helpful."

According to knowledgeable sources, Eakin turned over only six troubling emails to board investigators. That represented only a small portion of the 65 or so emails flagged as offensive so far this year.

The Judicial Conduct Board is the investigative and prosecutorial arm of the Court of Judicial Discipline.

Late last month, Eakin proposed that his case be taken up immediately by the judicial court, eliminating the Judicial Conduct Board's traditional role of investigating and preparing any charges.

In arguing against a new investigation by the conduct board, Eakin said the board has faced "unfortunate and wholly misguided accusations" about the fairness of its earlier review. This in part was an apparent reference by the justice to news reports that the board's counsel was a friend of the justice and had worked on his retention campaign.

Eakin said that removing the Judicial Conduct Board from its role would "alleviate any mistrust of the process."

But sources said Eakin's suggestion collapsed. The Judicial Conduct Board is expected to remain responsible for bringing any charges, but it may do so within days and without much additional investigation, they said.

The Court of Judicial Discipline, which would then take up the case, currently has six members. Three were appointed by the Supreme Court, and the others were appointed by past Pennsylvania governors.

At full complement, the judicial court has eight members, but it has been two short since September.

Under the state constitution, one of those open seats is a nominee of the Supreme Court, and the other is a nominee of Wolf, a Democrat. By law, the panel is to have four Republicans and four Democrats.

In the interview Friday, Snider, 75 - a Republican from Cumberland County, like Eakin - had said she was first approached to join the judicial tribunal about two or three weeks ago and that she expected to be named to the panel this week.

Asked if her nomination appeared likely, she had said: "Apparently. That's what I've been told."

She declined to say who told her that, saying she would prefer not to answer detailed questions due to "confidentiality."

She said she was initially contacted about the volunteer position by Joseph Metz, the counsel for the Court of Judicial Discipline.

In an interview Friday, Metz said: "I haven't talked to her about filling the vacancy." Metz said he was unaware of any move by the Supreme Court to fill its open slot on the judicial court.

In a later email, Snider also said: "I really don't know who nominated me."

Snider served as welfare secretary in the early 1990s under Gov. Robert P. Casey, a Democrat. In all, she worked for the agency for nearly 30 years.

State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia), who has been sharply critical of the email scandal, renewed his call Saturday for Eakin to resign.

Absent that, he said, Eakin's involvement in the attempt to put Snider on the judicial tribunal should become part of the overall investigation into his conduct.

Williams also said the court's pretense of surprise at the back-room maneuvering was simply a response to "being caught with a hand in the cookie jar."

A rift on the high court about how to deal with Eakin - one that does not divide on partisan lines - surfaced in November, when the court said it did not view his wrongdoing as serious enough to warrant action by the court itself.

Instead, the court said in a press release it would leave the matter to the Judicial Conduct Board and the Court of Judicial Discipline.

While Saylor and Baer were content to address the controversy via the press release, Stevens and Todd issued written opinions highly critical of Eakin.

The makeup of the court will change dramatically in January. Stevens will leave the court, and three Democrats will join. The court will then consist of five Democrats and two Republicans.

215-854-4821 @CraigRMcCoy