HARRISBURG - The state's judicial ethics court on Thursday ordered Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin to make a case for why he should not be suspended while it weighs his fate in the pornographic email scandal.
The Court of Judicial Discipline said it would hold a Dec. 21 hearing on whether to suspend Eakin as he awaits a trial before the panel on misconduct charges for exchanging emails containing sexually explicit, racist, misogynistic, or homophobic content.
Eakin sent and received the emails on a private account, but because he exchanged some with a friend who worked for the Attorney General's Office, they were captured on government computers.
"Although these emails were originally intended to be private conversations, they have now become public, potentially resulting in grave damage to the public's confidence in and integrity of the Pennsylvania judiciary," wrote Judge Jack A. Panella, the court's president judge emeritus.
Eakin, 67, a Republican elected to the bench in 2001, could not be reached for comment. He has previously apologized for the emails, saying they do not reflect his character.
He has also said he looks forward to making his case before the disciplinary tribunal, which, if it finds him guilty, could impose punishment ranging from a reprimand to removal from the bench.
Eakin's lawyer, Bill Costopoulos, said Thursday evening that Eakin was reviewing the order and "will respond appropriately and accordingly."
Costopoulos said Eakin accepted responsibility for exchanging the messages but did not violate judicial rules.
"We are prepared to go forward with that defense," Costopoulos said.
The Judicial Conduct Board charged Eakin with misconduct this week, saying he had "detracted from the dignity of his office" by his involvement in the email scandal.
In its 52-page complaint, the board said Eakin "engaged in conduct so extreme that it brought the judicial office into disrepute."
The board launched a review of Eakin's emails in October, after Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane revealed that the justice sent and received what she called "racial, misogynistic pornography."
Eakin had exchanged the messages with a small group of friends, including a prosecutor in Kane's office who used his government email address.
Some of the justice's emails that Kane has made public contain pictures and videos depicting topless women. Others are crude jokes that play on stereotypes to mock women, African Americans, Mexicans, feminists, gays and lesbians, and other groups.
The Inquirer reported last week that Eakin had exchanged a series of emails with a prosecutor in the Attorney General's Office that contained racy comments about two of the justice's female staffers.
As an investigation of his conduct loomed, Eakin took part in an eleventh-hour attempt to appoint a new member to the Court of Judicial Discipline, the newspaper reported. Eakin voted in favor of the appointee - a fellow Republican from Cumberland County - even though she would have had a say over whether he should be disciplined.
Hours after The Inquirer's report was published, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor withdrew the appointment, and Gov. Wolf called on Eakin to resign.
In releasing a sampling of Eakin's emails this fall, Kane had sharp criticism for the Judicial Conduct Board, which reviewed the justice's messages last year and cleared him of wrongdoing.
She also took aim at the state Supreme Court, which conducted a similar inquiry and said it found Eakin's emails unremarkable.
Kane said both bodies had given Eakin a pass.
The attorney general first learned of Eakin's emails last year, when she discovered that for years, her office had been a hub for the exchange of pornography and other troubling content among judges, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and other law enforcement officials.
She has named only nine people who sent or received the X-rated or offensive messages, even though dozens participated in the exchanges.
She has said repeatedly she intends to release all of the emails, yet has refused repeated requests for the information made under the state's Right-to-Know law.