HARRISBURG - The state's judicial ethics tribunal on Tuesday suspended Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin for his involvement in the "Porngate" scandal, saying his continued presence on the bench harmed the public's trust in the judiciary.
The Court of Judicial Discipline said Eakin sent and received offensive email messages, some containing images of naked women and jokes mocking minorities, women, and others, that have "tainted the Pennsylvania judiciary in the eyes of the public."
"The integrity of the Pennsylvania judiciary has been and continues to be subject to disrespect," a three-judge panel ruled.
The suspension will remain in effect until the court decides at trial whether Eakin, a Republican, violated judicial conduct rules when he exchanged the emails.
In the interim, he will continue to receive his annual $203,409 salary as well as benefits.
Eakin's lawyer, William Costopoulos, said Tuesday that the justice was disappointed in the decision, but added, "We respect the process and will be ready for trial."
"Hopefully, it will be sooner rather than later," Costopoulos said.
Eakin's suspension followed a tumultuous year for the state's highest court, one that saw another justice, Seamus P. McCaffery, a Democrat, step down from the bench after becoming entangled in the scandal.
The suspension also brings the until-now Republican-controlled seven-member court down to just four members: two Democrats and two Republicans, one of whom is retiring. Three new justices, all Democrats, are to be sworn in next month.
At a hearing Monday on his suspension, Eakin, 67, tearfully apologized for the messages, saying he never intended for them to be made public. The emails were from his private email account, but were captured on government servers because they were exchanged with a friend in the state Attorney General's Office who used his work email.
The justice also blamed "the tabloid press" for sensationalizing the matter and creating a perception that the criminal justice system had been corrupted by the exchange of the crude emails among judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and others.
His judicial opinions over the last two decades, he said, were based on thoughtful reasoning and facts, not biases.
To suspend him, even on a temporary basis, "stains me forever, and legitimizes the process that has led us here," Eakin told the disciplinary court's panel.
In its order, the panel said the suspension was not based on a review of Eakin's judicial opinions, nor was judicial bias a question it examined, as it had not been raised with the court. But the judges said they remained "deeply and profoundly troubled by even a remote possibility" that it could have affected his work.
The court did say that Eakin's suspension should not be viewed as a guilty verdict. It said his guilt or innocence will be decided at the formal trial, expected to occur early next year.
But it noted that Eakin, while using a personal email address, used a government computer to exchange some or all of the emails.
And though the messages were traded among a small group of friends, one of them was a government employee using a state email account. As such, it said, Eakin "should have had a lower expectation of privacy."
The court also pointed out that Eakin sent and forwarded a number of emails "which were insensitive and inappropriate toward matters involving gender, race, sexual orientation, and ethnicity."
Of particular concern were a series of emails in which Eakin and his friend, a prosecutor in the Attorney General's Office, made lewd references about two of the justice's female staffers, the panel said.
"Clearly these emails, which address judicial employees, are extremely inappropriate and offensive," they wrote.
Eakin was formally charged earlier this month by the Judicial Conduct Board with violating judicial conduct rules.
The conduct board said Eakin had "detracted from the dignity" of his position, and "engaged in conduct so extreme that it brought the judicial office into disrepute."
By exchanging the emails between 2008 and 2013, Eakin gave the appearance of impropriety and failed to recognize that his behavior outside the court might conflict with his judicial duties, the conduct board said.
Even after the Supreme Court strengthened judicial ethics rules last year, the conduct board said, Eakin "recklessly continued to engage in the pattern of sending and receiving emails that a person of reasonable sensitivity would find objectionable."
Eakin's emails first became public last year, when Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane was pressured to turn them over to the Supreme Court.
Kane found the emails on government computer servers after discovering that her office for years had served as the hub for the exchange of sexually explicit and offensive messages.
Both the Supreme Court and the Judicial Conduct Board conducted reviews of Eakin's emails last fall. The court found that the justice's emails were mostly "unremarkable," and the conduct board cleared him of wrongdoing.
This fall, Kane raised the issue of Eakin's emails anew. She did so shortly after the high court unanimously voted to suspend her law license after she was charged with perjury, conspiracy, and other crimes for allegedly leaking confidential grand jury information. She has pleaded not guilty.
Kane questioned whether Eakin had been given a pass. The Philadelphia Daily News has reported that the conduct board's counsel was a friend of the justice's and had worked on his retention campaign in 2011.
As the criticism mounted, the Judicial Conduct Board launched a second review of the justice's emails, this time, filing misconduct charges.
In most cases, Eakin was the recipient of the messages, not the sender - a distinction the justice noted several times during his testimony Monday.
"I should have put a spam filter on some of my friends," he said, later adding: "I didn't open half those things - I probably didn't open that many."
The justice's emails that have been made public contain pictures and videos of topless women, and supposed jokes at the expense of gays, lesbians, feminists, drunken college girls, and, in one instance, nuns.
One mocked Muslim children as suicide bombers, another called Mexicans "beaners," and yet another joked about domestic-assault victims.