Experts on legal ethics condemned Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin on Thursday following disclosures that he had sent or received emails that mocked Muslim children as suicide bombers, called Mexicans "beaners," and joked about domestic-assault victims.
"This justice ought to say, 'I'm terribly embarrassed. In retrospect, I deeply regret having done it. And I hope I will be forgiven,' " said Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr., a specialist on judicial ethics and emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Lawrence Fox, a Philadelphia lawyer and lecturer on legal ethics at Yale University Law School, said Eakin's involvement in the emails may have violated Pennsylvania's ethics code for judges.
"An abject apology is needed," Fox said.
And Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia, which advocates for battered women, said the emails appalled her.
"It's enraging," Tracy said. "It's enraging that men of this stature are engaged in activities that are so demeaning to women and to minorities."
Eakin, 66, a Republican first elected to the bench in 2001 and the court's liaison to the Philadelphia judicial system, did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.
Last week, he said he would not comment until the Judicial Conduct Board finished a review of his emails. That review was set in motion by state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, who said she gave the board an unspecified number of Eakin emails containing "racial, misogynistic pornography."
After taking office in 2013, Kane said she found by chance in a review of her office's computer servers that the Attorney General's Office had been a hub for the exchange of such emails.
She was able to access the Eakin messages and others because the digital information was stored on her office's computers as the emails flew among senders and recipients.
Kane named Eakin in her latest salvo of a campaign she has waged against what she says is an entrenched, porn-swapping culture among state and federal prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, police, and others in the state's criminal-justice system.
While decrying the emails and calling for their public release, Kane has refused repeated media requests to review them and has instructed her office's lawyers to fight a legal bid by The Inquirer to have them released.
She also refused to make public the Eakin emails. However, the Philadelphia Daily News published a detailed article Thursday that disclosed the contents of about 15.
In its account, the newspaper said the emails included:
A "joke" received by Eakin in which a mother laments that Muslim children "blow up so fast, don't they?"
One he received with a video in which a man calls Mexican day workers "beaners" and "animals."
A "joke" Eakin sent in which a woman complains to a doctor that her husband "beats me to a pulp." The doctor advises the woman that keeping her mouth shut would end the attacks.
An email he received in which an African American woman complains that President Obama wants to create jobs. "You mean I'm not going to get my government check?" the woman asks.
Last year, Kane suspended the sender of this last email, state prosecutor Jeffrey Baxter, for 10 days. He did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.
In yet another message Eakin was sent, a picture of a topless woman has the caption: "Dear Abby: 'I'm an 18-year-old girl from Arkansas and I'm still a virgin. Do you think my brothers are gay?' "
While it was unclear whether the Daily News gained access to every inappropriate Eakin email - or whether the emails the newspaper cited were among those Kane found - most of the material the paper described involved offensive humor, not pornographic images.
Scandal over emails first roiled the Supreme Court last October when the justices suspended a colleague, Seamus McCaffery, after he was found to have exchanged more than 230 sexually explicit emails with members of the Attorney General's Office.
The high court acted after an outside expert, reviewing emails made available by Kane, found that those emails contained more than 700 X-rated photos and 45 porn videos.
McCaffery retired from the court after Eakin charged that McCaffery had called him to say he was "not going down alone" and that he knew that Eakin, too, had received inappropriate emails.
The court's expert, Pittsburgh lawyer Robert Byer, reviewed Eakin's email, too. He said he found "nothing improper," except for one sent to Eakin with "offensive sexual content." The court took no action against Eakin.
It's unknown whether Kane's office gave Byer access to all the offensive emails, did not think the supposed jokes rose to the level of impropriety, or was just focused on rooting out pornographic content and skipped over the troubling jokes.
Byer, who is recovering from surgery, has been unavailable for comment.
Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University and an expert on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, said Thursday that the court appeared to have botched its review of the emails last year.
Ledewitz predicted that Eakin would be officially admonished for the emails - and rightly so, he added. However, Ledewitz said he did not think the material warranted the justice's removal from the bench. "That's for the voters," he said.
Eakin's term on the bench extends through 2019.
Offensive content aside, Ledewitz joined other critics in saying that the emails raised questions as to whether Eakin was too cozy with prosecutors and others involved in the email exchanges who might come before the court.
Charles Geyh, a specialist on judicial ethics at Indiana University's law school, said judges must always act - on and off the bench - in ways that promote confidence in their impartiality.
Geyh said judges occasionally find themselves in social situations in which racist or sexist jokes are told - and should not necessarily be punished for it.
But at some point, he said, "you do cross the line when someone has to ask, 'Do I want to go before a judge who finds this kind of stuff funny?' "
Fox, the ethics expert and partner with the Drinker Biddle & Reath law firm in Philadelphia, noted that the state Supreme Court updated the judicial ethics code last year to impose stricter rules on judges' "personal and extracurricular activities."
The new rules - approved by Eakin and all other justices - explicitly warn judges not to swap "jokes or other remarks that demean" people based on their gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation.
Fox said whether Eakin violated that canon would likely turn on the extent to which the justice was the recipient or the sender of offensive material. He said Eakin could also argue that the exchanges took place in what was meant to be a private realm.
In any event, Fox added, "it certainly reflects badly on him. There's no doubt about that."