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Was the Pa. Court of Judicial Discipline promoting transparency or covering its tracks?

Colin McNickle

In a victory for transparency — or was it? — Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Jack Panella shut down a proposed plea bargain in the state Judicial Conduct Board's case against suspended Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin.

The justice, off the job with pay since last month and scheduled to stand trial before the board next month, has admitted trading 18 ribald or otherwise lewd emails. Eakin's emails were sent from a private account. But they became the public's business when they were shared with a friend in the state Attorney General's Office.

AG Kathleen Kane, awaiting trial on perjury and other charges, sicced the conduct board on Eakin, serving revenge cold; Eakin voted to suspend Ms. Kane's law license pending the outcome of her legal woes.

But Judge Panella, serving as the lead judge on the three-member state Court of Judicial Discipline, cited the significance of the case to the judiciary, the law profession and the public in rejecting the plea bargain. Which was curious considering it was the court that reportedly spearheaded the move to mediation in a decidedly hush-hush fashion.

From the bench, however, Panella disputed lawyers' assertions that the court drove the mediation attempt.

Thus, the plea deal rejection did not sit well with lawyers representing Eakin or the conduct board.

As of this writing, no one was giving up, for the record, what the plea deal entailed. But The Philadelphia Inquirer, citing “people familiar with” it, said the scuttled bargain involved Eakin admitting ethics rules violations “but ones that do not carry the penalty of removal from the bench or loss of a government pension.”

While Panella should be applauded for his stance — or should he be denounced for obliquely trying to cover the Court of Judicial Discipline's tracks? — he could have served transparency better by ordering the release of the plea deal.

For the public has every right to know what kind of deal was struck behind closed doors with the curtains drawn.

One of the more troubling aspects of the Eakin case wasn't precipitated by the justice at all but by the Judicial Conduct Board.

It filed a motion last week seeking the right to use against Eakin offending emails that he never opened. Those emails buttress a pattern of conduct unbecoming a judge because their content allegedly is similar to emails that Eakin did open, the board said.

Really? Can it get any more chilling than this? Think of the ramifications.

How many unsolicited, unsavory emails do all of us get in our inboxes every day? Are we to be judged by the content of our inboxes? Does sending such unopened emails to the trash with clicks of the delete button count for nada?

How soon will it be on this slippery slope that knowingly sending unopened dubious emails to the trash also makes us somehow culpable in certain behaviors? After all, by the Judicial Conduct Board's slippery standards, that might indicate not only a pattern but attempts to hide the pattern.

How Orwellian.

Colin McNickle is Trib Total Media's director of editorial pages (412-320-7836 or [email protected]).


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