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Lawsuit: Former Pa. judge violated due-process rights

Two of the most controversial issues in Harrisburg in recent years - gambling and the pay raise - have collided in an explosive lawsuit alleging secretive backroom dealings by the state's former top judge.

Two of the most controversial issues in Harrisburg in recent years - gambling and the pay raise - have collided in an explosive lawsuit alleging secretive backroom dealings by the state's former top judge.

And the lawyer who brought the suit has claimed that the current head of the state Supreme Court is now trying to intimidate him.

The suit was filed by the League of Women Voters this week in federal court in Harrisburg. It alleges that former Chief Justice Ralph Cappy secretly negotiated with legislators for a judicial pay raise at a time the high court was considering upholding Pennsylvania's new gambling law.

The league, which had unsuccessfully challenged the 2004 law legalizing slot machines, alleges that its due-process rights were violated by what it called "bare-knuckle negotiations" that ran afoul of the separation of powers.

In a prepared statement, Cappy, who left the bench in January, called the allegations "preposterous" and vowed a vigorous defense.

"I do not understand why a respected organization such as the League of Women Voters would associate itself with this irresponsible lawsuit, especially since the charges consist of falsehoods, speculation and innuendo," said Cappy, who is now in private practice in Pittsburgh.

The suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, cited allegations and information provided by unnamed legislators, including a sitting senator. But it does not say how the legislators knew the information.

Cappy told lawmakers of one undisclosed legislative caucus that "he needed the pay raise to secure the votes of Republican justices" on cases important to legislators, the suit alleges.

Today, Paul A. Rossi, the attorney representing the league, stressed that the suit doesn't directly accuse Cappy of colluding with lawmakers. Instead, he said, by pushing for raises secretly, Cappy violated "a firewall" between legislators and the court. And, as a result, some lawmakers believed that Cappy was linking the raises with the court's favorable ruling upholding gambling, he said.

Cappy's successor, Chief Justice Ron Castille, said the suit was filled with "hearsay and rank speculation" that slanders the entire high court.

"It relies on nameless, faceless individuals who make false allegations behind a screen of anonymity, but apparently lack the courage to come forth and speak publicly," said Castille, adding that the suit may expose the league "to sanctions, and the attorney may have subjected himself to disciplinary action."Rossi dismissed Castille's comments as intimidation tactics.

"This is how they cower attorneys into fear," said Rossi. "Every paragraph in the suit is truthful, and I am not going to cower."

The legislature legalized slots gambling in 2004 and the high court, with three minor exceptions, upheld the constitutionality of the law in June 2005.

Two weeks later, lawmakers passed a bill that Gov. Rendell later signed, giving large pay raises to the legislature, other top state officials, and more than 1,000 judges statewide, including Supreme Court justices.

Bowing to public outrage, lawmakers repealed the pay raises in November 2005. However, the high court later reinstated the raises for the judiciary.

In the suit, Rossi, of Lancaster County, wrote that "in the face of legislative intransigence," high court justices determined it was necessary to "engage in the same style of hard-nose negotiations routinely waged between the executive and legislative branches of government."

"In fact," the suit continues, "because of the rough and tumble political culture in Harrisburg, plaintiff now believes that it is possible that justices of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania do not consider using cases as leverage to constitute a violation of due process concerns."

Chuck Ardo, Rendell's press secretary, said: "It is difficult to imagine there is validity to the allegations."

But, he added, "the governor was certainly unaware of the supposed secret meeting."

Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks) the legislature's most ardent gambling foe, said he has always known the League of Women Voters to be "meticulous and thorough" in its research.

"This is not a frivolous, fly-by-night group," he said. If the allegations are true, "then it's a sorry spectacle we have here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

The case has been assigned to Yvette Kane, the chief judge of the U.S. Middle District Court.