‘Integrity’ is mantra of candidates for spots on Pennsylvania’s scandal-tainted high court
HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ongoing scandals gave seven judicial candidates a natural platform to tout their own integrity during a 90-minute debate Wednesday night.
Voters will choose three new Supreme Court justices Nov. 3, a historic number of open seats on the seven-member body. Two of the three vacancies were caused by justices who resigned in disgrace, the most prominent topic addressed during the debate at Widener University Commonwealth Law School.
Candidates underlined the importance of independent reviews of justices who are accused of wrongdoing by the Judicial Conduct Board and Court of Judicial Discipline. The scandals continued to unfold this week, when the court issued a statement saying it was disappointed by the revelation of the lewd emails sent to the personal address of sitting Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin.
One of the candidates, Superior Court Judge David Wecht, an Indiana Township Democrat, said he was disturbed as much by the emails as by the traditional “chumminess” among lawyers and judges.
“It’s imperative that voters be confident in their justices,” Wecht said.
Last fall, former Justice Seamus McCaffery resigned when inappropriate and pornographic emails were discovered in his account. In 2013, former Justice Joan Orie Melvin was convicted of campaign corruption charges.
“It is critical that we have substantive change and not bureaucratic change, and I think everyone knows the difference on that,” said Adams County Court Judge Michael George, a Republican. “What needs to happen is the culture of the Supreme Court has to lay down the foundation.”
Judicial candidates are not permitted to make pledges, promises or commitments on how they will rule in certain cases. But they can express their opinion on political issues, and their opinions on court administration. During the debate, panelists pressed candidates on the changes they would make.
“First and foremost, we have to bring integrity back to the court,” said Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty, a Democrat, adding that he inherited a “dysfunctional” system as an administrative judge in Philadelphia that he said now has nationally recognized programs. “I believe the Supreme Court is a noble institution that has been beset by human frailty.”
Each candidate stressed his or her impartiality and integrity, despite the fact that they are running campaigns that involve taking donations from lawyers, law firms and interest groups. Questioning turned to how judges act in cases in which a donor is in front of them. Superior Court Judge Judy Olson of Wexford said even the appearance of impropriety is damaging to the court’s reputation.
“The last thing we need is anyone believing that justice can be purchased, because it cannot and should not,” Olson said.
Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue of Point Breeze, a Democrat, said she signed a pledge to avoid false or misleading advertising and not to work with any independent expenditure groups. But partisan politics is part and parcel of the way the state’s judicial elections are structured, she said.
“The minute you are sworn in, your partisan politics are gone,” said Donohue, who along with Wecht and Dougherty will be endorsed by the Democratic National Committee on Thursday in Pittsburgh.
Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey, a Republican, said while she received her party’s endorsement, she also has been endorsed by labor groups in the past. “I agree that justice serves all; it’s not along party lines,” she said.
An Independent candidate, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Paul Panepinto, who tried to run as a Republican in the past, said the nepotism and politics involved in the partisan system are why he’s running as a third-party candidate.
“Something hit me: You gotta deal with the politicians,” he said. “I could never even get (the party endorsement) even though I was more qualified than the candidates who participated.”
Voters can find more information about the candidates from the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which offers recommendation ratings for each candidate.
Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-8511.