Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin tearfully apologized Monday for exchanging emails that included pictures of naked women and crude jokes that mocked minorities, gays, lesbians, and others.
But the justice also said he had been the victim of a "media circus" - "dragged through the mud without the opportunity to address the misstatements and, in my mind, the total dishonesty in many of the news reports."
Appearing before the judicial ethics court that is weighing misconduct charges against him, Eakin said he regretted the messages, sent and received on a private account but made public because they were exchanged on government computer servers.
"I apologize," he told the Court of Judicial Discipline, adding that he believed he should be held accountable for the messages he sent, but not the ones he received. "I apologize to my brethren, to the judiciary, to the legal profession, to people who voted for me, to people who didn't vote for me, for what I have allowed to happen."
The justice pleaded with the court not to suspend him.
Of the emails, he said, "It's not criminal, it has nothing to do with my performance on the job."
The panel could decide this week whether Eakin should be suspended from the high court because of his involvement in the email scandal.
Monday's hearing, held in Easton, was for the court to consider whether to suspend the justice as he awaits a final decision by the panel on whether he violated judicial conduct rules by exchanging emails that contained sexually explicit and other offensive content.
Eakin sent or received the emails on a private account, but because some were traded with a friend who worked for the Attorney General's Office, they were captured on government computer servers.
Eakin, 66, a Republican who has served on the high court for more than a decade, has said the messages do not reflect his character.
"Perhaps my demeanor was 'one of the boys,' " he told the court. "But what I sent was to people who were 'one of the boys.' It was in the locker room."
The Judicial Conduct Board charged Eakin with misconduct this month, saying he had "detracted from the dignity of his office" by sending or receiving the messages. In a 52-page complaint, the board said Eakin "engaged in conduct so extreme that it brought the judicial office into disrepute."
In court Monday, Francis J. Puskas, deputy chief counsel for the Judicial Conduct Board, argued that suspending Eakin was necessary to protect the integrity of the court and give the public confidence that it operates without bias.
"The public is left wondering whether Justice Eakin has a conscious or even unconscious bias about the groups who are the butt of these emails," said Puskas.
He specifically cited an email Eakin received showing an obese naked woman on all fours with a pig snout and pig ears. "Women might say it's equating women to animals," he said.
Puskas said Eakin's conduct failed "the smell test." He added: "There is something horribly wrong in the air and this court must clear it."
Eakin, in court papers filed last week, described the messages as "male banter" and said they did not cast the court, or his position on it, in a bad light because they were exchanged with friends and were never intended to be made public.
Eakin's lawyer, William Costopoulos, told the court Monday that suspending Eakin would be a knee-jerk reaction to pressure generated by the media.
"What we cannot do," he said, "is burn him at the stake.
Lawyer Samuel C. Stretton, an expert in legal ethics who testified on Eakin's behalf, said the justice did not violate judicial canons in sending the emails.
"He's fully accepted responsibility and apologized," Stretton said. "I don't think a suspension is warranted."
As for the offensive emails, he said, "There isn't a judge alive - or a man alive - who hasn't looked at pornography or laughed at an off-color joke."
The conduct board launched a review of Eakin's emails in the fall, after Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane revealed that the justice had sent and received what she called "racial, misogynistic pornography."
Eakin exchanged the messages with a small group of friends, including a prosecutor in Kane's office who used his government email address.
Some of the justice's emails that Kane has made public contain pictures and videos depicting topless women. Others are crude jokes that mock women, African Americans, Mexicans, feminists, gays and lesbians, and other groups.
The Inquirer has reported that Eakin also exchanged a series of emails that contained racy comments about two of the justice's female staffers.
At Monday's hearing, two of Eakin's staffers testified that they were not offended by emails in which he joked with a friend about sleeping with them during a planned golf outing in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"He's always been respectful and professional," said Lynn Zembower, Eakin's office manager. Of the emails, she said, "They did not bother me."
Eakin's secretary, Janey Thrush, testified that she was not offended by the email messages. She said one of the participants in the email exchange, Jeffery Baxter, a prosecutor at the Attorney General's Office and a friend of Eakin's, had sent her flowers after news broke of the mails, in which the two joked about inviting the two women on the golf trip and sleeping with them. She said she called to tell him the flowers were "not necessary in any way."
Of Eakin, Thrush said she had "nothing but utter respect and admiration for him."
As The Inquirer has reported, while the Judicial Conduct Board was completing its investigation of Eakin, he attempted to appoint a new member to the Court of Judicial Discipline. Eakin voted in favor of the appointee - a fellow Republican from Cumberland County - even though she would have had a say over whether he should be disciplined.
After the newspaper story was published, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor withdrew the appointment, and Gov. Wolf called on Eakin to resign.
In releasing a sampling of Eakin's emails this fall, Kane had sharp criticism for the Judicial Conduct Board, which reviewed the justice's messages last year and cleared him of wrongdoing.
She also took aim at the state Supreme Court, which conducted a similar inquiry and said it found Eakin's emails unremarkable.
Kane said both bodies had given Eakin a pass.