Before the rapper Meek Mill was sent back to prison on a probation violation last fall, an unexpected ally put in a call to the Philadelphia judge overseeing the case.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell pitched a solution to Common Pleas Court Judge Genece E. Brinkley that he believed would keep Mill under her supervision, help the city, and remove the restriction that most rankled the rapper and his promoters. If Brinkley lifted her ban on unapproved out-of-state travel, which was hurting Mill's ability to tour, he'd donate 15 percent of his concert revenues to Philadelphia's burgeoning pre-K program, Rendell said.
Brinkley didn't respond to the proposal on the phone, Rendell said in a recent interview. She later sentenced Mill to two to four years in prison — a decision that unleashed a wave of protest from supporters who have held up the rapper as a poster child for the thousands of black men incarcerated in what they view as an overly punitive system.
>> READ MORE: Update: Meek Mill released from prison on bail
Rendell's previously unreported phone call — and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the days and weeks since — underscore a key aspect of a case that has attracted nationwide interest:
Mill is no ordinary defendant. Brinkley is no typical judge.
And both have exerted power, status, and resources to win advantages in court in ways that few others could — ways that legal ethicists describe as problematic.
Rendell is just one of Mill's prominent backers. Others include a Main Line billionaire and an NBA icon who have stepped up to try to influence his case or mold the public narrative surrounding it.
While the rapper's lawyers have focused in their appeals on a claim that Brinkley tried to extort favors from Mill in a private meeting in 2016 — a claim they have yet to prove — a cadre of hired public-relations specialists and private investigators has dug into Brinkley's past for anything that could besmirch her in the court of public opinion.
They cite a string of private lawsuits Brinkley has filed in the last two decades, including some against defendants who say she improperly used her judicial position to intimidate or gain an advantage against them.
In one letter sent to would-be courtroom opponents, Brinkley wrote: "As you know, I am a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia and I will not hesitate to proceed against you immediately."
Asked about that document and Rendell's phone call to the judge, Stanford University law professor Robert W. Gordon said both appear to violate ethical standards.
"It really is an amazing tangle," said Gordon, who has served on several state and national bar association task forces on professional ethics and practice.
The rapper, the governor, and the billionaire
Rendell says Main Line billionaire Michael Rubin brought Mill — whose legal name is Robert Rihmeek Williams — to his attention.
Rubin, 43, of Bryn Mawr, a co-owner of the 76ers and the New Jersey Devils, and a fixture on Forbes' lists of richest Americans — worth an estimated $2.9 billion — became friendly with Mill, 30, after meeting him at the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston. In recent months, Rubin has devoted extensive time and money to raise awareness of what he sees as the injustice at the heart of the rapper's case.
Mill first landed in Brinkley's court a decade ago on drug and gun charges. She sent him to prison, later set his terms of probation, and briefly jailed him in 2014 for violating those conditions.
After Brinkley again ordered Mill imprisoned in November, Rubin spent thousands of dollars blanketing the city with billboards featuring the hashtag #FreeMeekMill. In interviews, he has called the judge's decision a travesty that has made him lose "faith in the justice system."
And when a woman involved in a decade-old legal dispute with Brinkley feared talking to Mill's investigators, it was Rubin who had NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson call the woman's husband, a fan, to persuade them to speak publicly.
"They were scared to come forward," said Rubin. "I said [to the woman], 'I've got your back. You've got my word.'"
Rendell said he has never met Mill.
"I wouldn't know him if I walked into an elevator and he was there," the former governor said. "I've never listened to his music."
Yet, Rendell says, he offered to make his pitch to the judge after Rubin, a longtime political supporter, brought the case to his attention and obtained Mill's blessing.
Rendell — who backed Brinkley when she first ran for the bench in 1993 — maintains he contacted her as a "friend of the court" and private citizen, not as a lawyer trying to shape her decision. He likened the conversation to a letter that any defendant's supporter might write to a judge before sentencing and said he had made a similar call to another judge in the past.
"I didn't push her," the former district attorney and mayor said. "I'd never try to influence a judge's opinion."
Legal ethicists characterized the call as at best problematic and at worst a violation by Mill or his team of rules prohibiting "ex parte" communications, or one-sided dealings with a judge overseeing a case.
"While [Rendell] may have been very careful not to try to influence the judge, as he says," said Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics scholar at New York University, he "risked giving the public the wrong impression — that the administration of justice is subject to political influence.
"Not everyone knows a politician who can make a call."
Although Brinkley apparently ignored Rendell's suggestion, the prosecutor assigned to the case was never informed of the discussion either by Brinkley or by Mill's defense, said Jan McDermott, a supervisor in the District Attorney's Office.
Brinkley declined to comment on the former governor's account of the phone call — or any aspect of Mill's case — citing, through her staff, judicial conduct rules that bind her from discussing cases in which she is presiding.
Those rules bar judges from using their office to advance private interests or convey the impression that they could do so — a provision that Mill's backers contend Brinkley has repeatedly violated.
A litigious judge
Since her election in 1993, Brinkley, who presides primarily over criminal cases, has filed at least 19 lawsuits, making her one of the most litigious judges on Common Pleas Court.
Most are landlord-tenant disputes tied to the six properties she has owned, mainly in the city's Frankford section. Others are more unusual — like the 2014 personal injury claim she filed against the Hotel Hershey in Dauphin County for "intense trauma" she says she endured for months after finding a housekeeper's name tag in her hotel bed. That case was settled for an undisclosed sum.
Read the document: Brinkley's lawsuit against the Hotel Hershey.
In interviews with the Inquirer and Daily News, several people whom Brinkley has sued told similar stories of her citing her position on the bench in attempts to intimidate them.
Anna Torres, 33, described the two years she lived in a Brinkley-owned building in Frankford as "the worst two years of my life," citing her dealings with Brinkley and the discovery of lead contamination in the apartment. After she moved out, Torres sued the judge in 2009, seeking to recoup her $650 deposit. An out-of-county judge ultimately ruled in her favor.
But before the case went to trial, Torres says, a woman describing herself as Brinkley's judicial secretary repeatedly telephoned and warned her to drop the lawsuit or Brinkley would destroy her in court.
"She tried to scare me, but I wasn't going to stop," Torres said.
Another former tenant, Alan Oswald, 59, lived in a North Penn Street apartment that Brinkley bought in 2003. He moved out that same year after she demanded $925 in back rent she said he owed.
"'I'm a judge, you know, I can sue you,'" Oswald recalled Brinkley telling him before she followed through with that threat.
Their dispute ended in a draw: Brinkley kept Oswald's deposit, and he didn't have to pay the back rent. Whether or not Brinkley intended to use her position to intimidate him, Oswald said, he viewed the judge bringing up her job as a way to diminish his resolve to fight in court.
"I just felt like we weren't going to win this case," he said. "The fix was in."
Told of Torres' and Oswald's claims, Brinkley, through her legal secretary, Carla L. Wilson, turned down several requests from the Inquirer and Daily News to discuss them. Questions about the lawsuits were also delivered to her chambers and sent by email and certified mail. She did not respond.
A year after Oswald's case was resolved, Brinkley made a similar threat of legal action and mentioned her job in an eviction notice sent to three tenants at a property she owned in Center City.
"As you know, I am a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia County and I will not hesitate to proceed against you immediately," she wrote in a letter filed as an exhibit in the case.
Those tenants did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But Gillers, the NYU legal ethicist, called Brinkley's language in the letter "especially disturbing."
"Whether the judge intended it or not, [her remarks] can be read to imply that the judge will have special influence if the dispute goes to court," he said.
Read the document: Brinkley's letter to her tenants
Documents sent to defendants in other lawsuits brought by Brinkley — including a 2010 suit against the Department of Licenses and Inspections over its rejection of her request for off-street parking at her Fitzwater Street home — are written on judicial letterhead. One document ended with Wilson's initials, suggesting the legal secretary typed the letter for the judge.
The state Judicial Code of Conduct bars judges from using official letterhead "to gain an advantage" or using courthouse staff to conduct personal business.
More broadly, the code prohibits them from using their office to advance private interests or convey the impression that they could do so.
"That's real misuse of the judicial office," said Gordon, the Stanford ethicist. "You are using your office as kind of an implicit threat in a legal dispute."
‘On Bended Knee’
Such behavior, Mill's backers say, is of a piece with a bolder allegation they lodged last year against Brinkley in Superior Court in an appeal to free the rapper from prison — that she sought to use her control over Mill's fate to coerce personal favors from him.
In an in-chambers conference with the rapper in 2016, his lawyers allege, Brinkley inappropriately asked Mill to record a cover of "On Bended Knee," a Boyz II Men song she liked, and mention her name in it. They also claim that Brinkley urged the rapper to ditch his current management company, Jay-Z's Roc Nation, in favor of Philadelphia-based manager Charles "Charlie Mack" Alston, who represented Mill early on during Brinkley's supervision of his probation.
They have yet to offer proof of those allegations, and Brinkley has not publicly addressed them.