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Montco judge, judge-elect hire their wives as secretaries

In a move that has raised some eyebrows but apparently broke no rules, a Montgomery County Court judge and a judge-elect are hiring their wives to serve as their $52,721-a-year secretaries.

In a move that has raised some eyebrows but apparently broke no rules, a Montgomery County Court judge and a judge-elect are hiring their wives to serve as their $52,721-a-year secretaries.

Judge-elect Gary Silow named his wife, Mary, to start the job when he takes office Jan. 4. Judge Paul Tressler promoted his wife, Nancy, to secretary from her job as his crier, which will raise her pay by about $13,000 when she begins next month.

"My wife has been my secretary and my paralegal for 20 years, and she is extremely competent," Silow said yesterday. "She would be my first choice for the job."

Tressler, who faces mandatory retirement at the end of 2010 after he turns 70, did not return calls to his home and office. His wife has served as his crier since 1998.

Federal judges are barred from hiring relatives "within the degree of first cousin," and the American Bar Association's model code of judicial conduct says judges "shall avoid nepotism" in hiring staff.

But the practice is not uncommon in Pennsylvania, owing to what state Judicial Conduct Board chief counsel Joseph Massa recently called "a gray area of the code" that the board enforces.

For more than a decade, Montgomery County has barred nepotism in hiring. But court workers are different.

They are on the county payroll, but their supervisors - the judges - are state employees. And that, County Solicitor Barry Miller said yesterday, makes hiring spouses legal.

The county Salary Board approved the appointments yesterday by a 3-2 vote after Commissioner Joseph M. Hoeffel 3d fruitlessly searched for an antinepotism rule that would have blocked the moves.

"Somebody ought to have the authority to stop this from happening," he said.

In Pennsylvania's judiciary, no law restricts the practice, and various judges from the county level to the state Supreme Court have supervised their spouses and other kin.

When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote the state judicial conduct code in 1973, the justices chose to omit the ABA's model wording on nepotism.

The state's highest court has never barred hiring relatives.

"I have mixed feelings about it," former State Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman said. "There are so many people who need jobs out there, they certainly should be able to find someone who is qualified."

Newman said her concerns were not solely ethics-related; such hiring could turn intrafamily disputes into problems with meting out justice, she said.

She said two sons and a brother of hers were lawyers and none worked for her.

"My husband certainly wasn't going to be my secretary, so I never dealt with that," she said.

Montgomery County Court President Judge Richard J. Hodgson, who cast the deciding vote on the Salary Board in favor of the hires, said he believed concerns over appearances of nepotism were misplaced because county judges' staffs are compartmentalized.

The judges interact only during weekly conferences, Hodgson said. He reasoned that, as each judge has just one secretary, the spousal hires would not result in any favoring of one employee over another. Judges' secretaries "have no effect on what anybody else does," Hodgson said.

The board vote fell along party lines. Hodgson is a Republican, as are County Commissioners James R. Matthews and Bruce L. Castor Jr., who also voted for the hires, each saying he believed judges should be able to choose their secretaries without restriction. Tressler and Silow are Republicans as well.

The board's dissenters, Hoeffel and County Controller Diane Morgan, are Democrats. Morgan said hiring family gave a poor public impression.

In Philadelphia, where judges' relatives have frequently turned up on court payrolls, Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner said that if the public wants to change the state law, it can always try to do so.

"If the people of Pennsylvania want an antinepotism law in this regard," Lerner said, "they can put enough pressure on the legislature, it seems to me, to get that."