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Editorial: Judge DeLeon

Playing by his own rules

Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge James M. DeLeon can't claim he was wet behind the ears three years ago when he ran a shadow court proceeding for a social acquaintance and issued a bogus court order. He had been on the bench 17 years.

With good reason, the state Court of Judicial Discipline last week ruled that DeLeon, 61, had violated conduct rules and brought the judiciary into disrepute. His actions would be inexcusable even if he had just been fitted for his first black robe. DeLeon violated a fundamental judicial tenet - that all parties to a dispute have a right to be notified and allowed to witness the legal process.

DeLeon played by his own set of rules when he offered to issue a "stay-away" order to help Rittenhouse Square resident George Sfedu, the honorary Romanian consul general to the city. Sfedu met the judge in 2005 at a Center City social event and told him that a neighbor was hassling Sfedu's teen-age daughter, according to the disciplinary panel. DeLeon's unorthodox response was to issue a bogus order - never even recorded in the court - and do so without notifying the neighbor to hold a proper hearing.

When the neighbor got an attorney to contest the order months later, DeLeon held another one-sided hearing to vacate his order. This time, he ordered only the neighbor and his attorney to appear before him. Once again, his order was not recorded with the court system.

This wasn't just "a case of bad judgment," as DeLeon's attorney, Samuel C. Stretton, contends. Rather, it appears the judge turned his back on a core concept of the judicial system not once, but twice.

In a veteran judge, an error of judgment of this magnitude is even more significant. When the disciplinary court convenes to deliberate on DeLeon's penalty - including his possible removal - its members must ask themselves how someone who, in effect, flunked Judging 101 can remain on the bench. He can't.