HARRISBURG - The state's judicial ethics court cast a critical eye Thursday on its own investigative agency, seeking more information about what some have called a botched inquiry into offensive emails exchanged by Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin.
At a hearing for the justice on Thursday, a three-judge panel requested that the Judicial Conduct Board, which investigates ethics complaints against judges, answer a long list of questions about its initial investigation of Eakin.
That inquiry, in late 2014, concluded that Eakin had not violated any ethics rules when he sent or received emails that contained nudity, mocked minorities and illegal immigrants, and made demeaning jokes about women and others.
The conduct board reopened the investigation last fall, after state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane raised questions about whether the justice had been given a pass.
Last month, it charged Eakin with engaging in conduct "so extreme that it brought the judicial office into disrepute." He could face a trial as early as this spring.
The panel of the Court of Judicial Discipline said Thursday that it wanted the detailed information from the board by next month.
The disciplinary court's request was an unusual twist to Thursday's hearing, which focused on who might testify at Eakin's trial.
Eakin's lawyer raised the specter of calling other Supreme Court justices to the hearing and forcing them to testify about questionable emails they received, but said he would do that only if the panel insisted on scrutinizing emails Eakin received as well as those he sent.
As for the inquiry into the previous investigation, the panel requested to know whether Eakin or the Judicial Conduct Board's chief counsel, Robert A. Graci, disclosed their political and social ties. Graci, who oversaw the probe, was a lawyer for Eakin's 2011 retention campaign and is a longtime friend of the justice.
Kane said that her office found and offered to Graci new and damaging Eakin emails days after the conduct board cleared him of wrongdoing, but that Graci ignored them.
In the misconduct proceedings against Eakin, the disciplinary court is seeking all statements Eakin made to the Judicial Conduct Board, and has asked whether those statements were made under oath, and what emails the board had in its possession when it cleared him the first time around.
The board assigned a new staffer to lead the second review. In its detailed complaint against Eakin, the board glossed over Kane's complaint that it had previously ignored emails.
Kane's critics have said her decision to publicly release Eakin's emails was driven by revenge. Eakin joined his colleagues last September in temporarily suspending the attorney general's law license after she was charged with perjury and other offenses.
Prosecutors say Kane illegally leaked confidential grand jury material in a bid to embarrass a critic and later lied about it under oath. She has pleaded not guilty.
After Thursday's hearing, Heidi Eakin, the justice's wife and one of his lawyers, blamed Kane for setting in motion the disciplinary investigation.
"Look back at the genesis of when this started - this is coming from an embattled attorney general who has been indicted on criminal charges," she told reporters after the hearing.
Another Eakin lawyer, William Costopoulos, asked the panel to make a distinction between emails Eakin sent and those he received, as there is no proof that he opened or even saw the ones that were sent to him.
Costopoulos noted that other Supreme Court justices received similar offensive emails and have not been sanctioned.
The Inquirer reported this week that Supreme Court Justices Max Baer and Kevin Dougherty received a small number of offensive messages from a former high court justice, Seamus McCaffery.
The majority of the 120 emails cited in the conduct board's complaint against Eakin were ones that the justice received. Costopoulos said Eakin sent 18 messages, all from a private account, to a small group of friends that included a lawyer in Kane's office who was using his government email address.
While Supreme Court justices should be held to a higher standard, Costopoulos said, "they do not live in monasteries. And they are human."