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Controversial judge said to be leaving bench

After eight years marked by several high-profile run-ins with lawyers, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Leslie Fleisher is expected to resign early next year, according to court-system sources.

After eight years marked by several high-profile run-ins with lawyers, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Leslie Fleisher is expected to resign early next year, according to court-system sources.

Fleisher, 47, a Republican who was appointed to a vacant judgeship by Gov. Tom Ridge and then won election to a full term, declined to be interviewed through her attorney, Samuel C. Stretton.

Stretton said that Fleisher misses her pre-bench work with animal-rights organizations and that "she is contemplating retiring from the bench so she could pursue these interests."

Fleisher's apparent decision to retire follows a tumultuous two years in which lawyers have complained about absences and irregular working hours, a growing backlog of unresolved cases, and behavior that has led to several courtroom confrontations with lawyers.

The judge's departure from her $161,850-a-year post early next year has been an open secret for weeks at the Criminal Justice Center. Court-system sources say it has been in the works for the last year.

Last year, after one in-court face-off that almost led to a formal complaint with the state Judicial Conduct Board, court officials asked a retired judge to "shadow" Fleisher's courtroom management and recommend improvements.

The confrontation in question was a March 26, 2008, incident in which Fleisher cited criminal-defense lawyer Michael Coard and his associate Venus Foster for contempt of court.

According to the hearing transcript, Fleisher became angry when Coard sent Foster to postpone a client's hearing. The judge accused Foster of lying when she said the prosecutor did not object to continuing the hearing. The prosecutor said she would not take a position on postponement, according to the transcript.

Fleisher ordered Coard - then teaching a law class at Temple University - to report immediately in person or face contempt charges.

Fleisher berated Coard and Foster and set a contempt hearing.

The hearing never happened. An overflow crowd of Coard supporters forced a postponement.

Coard said he began preparing a complaint against Fleisher with the Judicial Conduct Board. He said he was dissuaded from filing after a talk with C. Darnell Jones II, then president judge of Common Pleas Court.

Jones, since October 2008 a federal judge in Philadelphia, declined to discuss Fleisher or his discussion with Coard and others about the judge.

Shortly after his talk with Jones, Coard said, he was informed the contempt hearing was canceled, and Fleisher's contempt citation vanished.

Despite his confrontation's outcome, Coard maintained that Fleisher's conduct is about more than insults and bruised lawyer egos.

"It's terrible that this has been tolerated as long as it has," Coard said. "She is finding clients guilty."

Another defense lawyer with disputes with Fleisher is A. Charles Peruto Jr.

While most lawyers talk about judges only if their names are not used, Peruto was bluntly on the record.

Peruto said his first dispute with Fleisher came in 2004, during her first year on the bench after her election. He said he was in court representing a client being sentenced on drug charges.

Peruto said he started speaking about mitigating factors - reasons his client deserved leniency - when Fleisher stopped him and said he should have raised the subject earlier. Mitigation is part of a guilty-plea hearing, not sentencing, the judge said.

"No, Your Honor, mitigation is part of sentencing," Peruto said he replied, only to be cut off by Fleisher.

"Don't tell me about the law. From what I hear, you don't know much yourself," Fleisher said, according to Peruto.

The debate moved into chambers, where Peruto said Fleisher threatened to fine him $500 for contempt of court and he threatened a judicial-conduct complaint.

The dispute ended there in stalemate. Peruto said that he was not fined and that Fleisher was lenient with his client.

"She should not be a lawyer," Peruto said. "She is a disgrace to the other judges."

Fleisher has not filed a letter announcing a retirement or resignation date with Gov. Rendell, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, or Common Pleas Court President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe.

Dembe said she had not received any formal notice: "If and when any judge decides to leave is a matter that is in her hands."

Though Fleisher remains on the court's official schedule, the judge has not been in her fifth-floor courtroom - she handles motions and probation violations for lesser crimes - since Nov. 19.

Stretton said Fleisher had been absent because of pneumonia.

Dembe confirmed the illness and said that in the interim, some of Fleisher's caseload was being reassigned to Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper. Fleisher's courtroom is to be reassigned Jan. 4 to Judge Willis W. Berry Jr., who will be returning from a four-month suspension without pay for running his real estate business from his courthouse offices.

In some ways, Leslie Fleisher's rise to judge of Common Pleas Court was against the odds.

Fleisher's bachelor's degree was from Temple University and her law degree from Widener University's law school.

Fleisher made her first run for Common Pleas Court in 1999. She was 37, a low-profile solo practitioner known mostly for the pro bono work she did for animal-rights groups. The Philadelphia Bar Association rated her unqualified. Moreover, she was registered Republican in a city where Democrats outnumbered GOP voters 7-2.

Fleisher didn't make it past the primary election.

Two years later, Fleisher ran again. Though her resume was unchanged, Fleisher had the support of several Teamsters Union locals, which pumped thousands into her campaign, along with crucial organizational support.

This time, Fleisher cross-filed and won both parties' nominations - tantamount to election in Philadelphia. It turned out Fleisher had even less to worry about.

A month before the Nov. 4, 2001, general election, Ridge named Fleisher to a vacant Philadelphia judgeship, one of Ridge's last acts before resigning to become President George W. Bush's secretary of Homeland Security.

Two years later - now with the title of judge and some experience on her resume - Fleisher ran for the full 10-year term and polled seventh among 13 for 11 Common Pleas Court judgeships.

But Fleisher began acquiring a reputation among lawyers as a judge with a short fuse and a quick gavel when it came to contempt of court.

By the time of Coard's dustup in March 2008, court-system sources said, lawyer complaints had already brought Fleisher to the Judicial Conduct Board's attention.

Investigations of sitting judges are by nature and law confidential - even when judges are facing criminal charges by another agency.

What is known is that the Coard incident seemed to be a turning point. Fleisher's contempt-of-court proceedings against Coard and his associate disappeared.

Later in 2008, court officials asked retired Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Anthony J. DeFino to "shadow" Fleisher and offer pointers about courtroom management.

DeFino confirmed the assignment, which he said was part of a one-year consulting contract he had with the Philadelphia court system.

"I didn't do anything more with Judge Fleisher than I did with any other judge," DeFino said. "I was asked to work with a number of the new judges."

Stretton, Fleisher's attorney, is a veteran area criminal lawyer. He also is known for representing judges with disciplinary or legal troubles.

Stretton declined to comment about other factors possibly involved in Fleisher's retirement decision.

Though 47 is young to retire, Fleisher's voluntary departure would have its upside. She would retain her name and lifetime right to style herself the "Honorable Judge Leslie Fleisher, Retired," a distinction often valued by law firms looking to burnish their legal rosters.

Fleisher is vested in her state pension and, after eight years, probably could get a third of her current salary.

That the judiciary might try to quietly work out an exit strategy for a judge who turned out to be problematic is not unusual. Most organizations are loath to publicly air internal problems.

And that's what would happen if the Judicial Conduct Board brought charges against Fleisher: a public trial before the Court of Judicial Discipline that could end in reprimand, suspension, or removal.

The Philadelphia judiciary has been there before. Since last December, the Court of Judicial Discipline has reprimanded a Philadelphia Traffic Court judge, suspended a Municipal Court judge for three months without pay, and suspended Berry from Common Pleas Court for four months without pay.