Recent revelations of pornographic e-mails, name-calling in the media, allegations of criminal and ethical misconduct, and amateur psychological diagnoses have done nothing but tarnish the commonwealth's justice system.
It's disheartening to see this kind of behavior coming from the Supreme Court. Every justice should be working to reassure Pennsylvanians that they can come to court and be heard by qualified, fair, and impartial judges. Just the appearance of impropriety or misbehavior can be devastating to people's confidence in the judiciary, even if no legal wrongdoing has occurred.
And the last few weeks are the tip of the iceberg. The last decade has seen a series of embarrassing court scandals: Luzerne County's Kids-for-Cash, the conviction of former Justice Joan Orie Melvin for campaign corruption, administrative missteps in the process of building the much-needed new Philadelphia Family Court, Philadelphia Traffic Court judges facing federal charges of ticket-fixing and favoritism. And now this.
When is enough enough?
Because they sit in judgment of others and make decisions that affect every part of our lives, judges must be held to the highest possible standard. The court system must maintain the confidence of the people it serves. Pennsylvanians deserve judges they can trust to exercise good judgment both professionally and personally.
So where do we go from here? We have suggestions for the stakeholders.
The state's Judicial Conduct Board. It must move quickly, thoroughly, and as transparently as possible to investigate the serious allegations against Justice Seamus McCaffery. If appropriate, the board should file charges in the Court of Judicial Discipline without delay. If the board needs additional resources, they should be provided quickly and without strings. Anyone who is asked to provide information to the board, including judges, should comply without hesitation. We can't move forward until we know the truth.
If the investigation clears McCaffery, the Supreme Court should make that report public, reinstate him to the bench immediately, and get back to work.
The Judicial Conduct Board investigates and evaluates hundreds of complaints of misconduct annually. But it is understaffed and underfunded. According to Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, the board has struggled to meet payroll and to afford a case-management system. This is unacceptable. The General Assembly must provide enough funding for the board to perform the job it is constitutionally required to do.
The board should also update its internal operating procedures so it does not delay its own inquiries when there is also a criminal investigation. While there are valid concerns about overlapping investigations or possible interference, the end result is that board investigations drag on. The standards for determining ethical violations are not the same as criminal violations. The board must give top priority to its constitutional duty to protect Pennsylvanians.
The Attorney General's Office. It should, in cooperation with the Supreme Court, look into the rest of the approximately 3,766 e-mails between Supreme Court justices and the Attorney General's Office to see whether any of these e-mails contained inappropriate ex-parte communications, which are communications about a pending case that exclude some of the parties involved. If inappropriate communications are discovered, they should be referred immediately to the Judicial Conduct Board. Pennsylvanians need to be confident that all justices are conducting court business appropriately.
The Pennsylvania court system. Annual ethics training should be mandatory for all judges and court staff. Currently, ongoing ethics training is mandatory only for magisterial district judges. As recent events have proven, however, they are certainly not the only judges who need a reminder of what is and is not ethically appropriate for judges.
The courts should also publicize any rules about the use of court-issued resources. If there are no rules, create them. If they need updating, update them immediately. Personal business should be conducted on personal time, using personal equipment. Otherwise, the line between public service and private life becomes unacceptably blurred. Judges deserve a certain level of privacy in their personal lives, although they must always be aware of the possible appearance of impropriety.
For the rest of us. Finally and most fundamentally, we have to stop electing statewide judges and move to a qualifications-based selection process. It doesn't make sense to select statewide appellate judges in expensive partisan elections in which campaigning and fund-raising are more relevant than qualifications, judicial temperament, or good judgment.
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts recommends that Pennsylvanians enact a constitutional amendment to adopt a hybrid appointment-election system for choosing statewide judges. It would consist of a broad-based, bipartisan nominating commission that would recommend a short list of the most highly qualified judicial candidates to the governor. Once put forward by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, judges would serve four-year terms, with voters deciding whether the person merits retention for 10-year terms. The public would also be encouraged to weigh in on a nominee during all stages of the selection process.
There are, of course, many excellent judges in Pennsylvania. They reached the bench despite our misguided system of selection, not because of it. Their public service should not be undermined by continuing incidents that tarnish the image of the entire judicial system.
The cycle of scandal in our court system must end. No more embarrassing headlines. No more distractions. It's time to restore Pennsylvanians' trust in our justice system.