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Pennsylvania Supreme Court

After Justice's Resignation, Doubt Deepens About Pennsylvania's Judicial Discipline System

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin has resigned from the court amid an ethics probe into a multitude of sexist, racist and pornographic emails he received. However, his resignation has deepened the skepticism about Pennsylvania's judicial discipline system. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Craig R. McCoy, Angela Couloumbis and Mark Fazlollah report. After Eakin resigned, the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board asked for permission to drop the most serious charge it had brought against Eakin, which would let Eakin keep his $153,000 annual pension.

Eakin was cleared the first time the JCB reviewed the emails. But the JCB began a new investigation when Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane (facing her own criminal charges for allegedly leaking grand jury material to the press) raised "additional questions about his email with jokes that mocked women, minorities, immigrants, and others," The Inquirer reports.

Campaign Cash Growing in Judicial Elections

Over $15 million was spent on the most recent election for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, including $12.2 million in direct campaign contributions and $3.5 million from two independent groups, Associated Press' Christina Almeida Cassidy reports. Almost $10 million was raised by the three Democratic candidates who were ultimately successful in winning seats on the court. Most of that money was raised from labor unions and trial lawyers.

Pennsylvania is not alone in seeing an infusion of contributions to state supreme court races. In 2014, spending on judicial elections tallied at over $34.5 million.

Supreme Court Justice Faces Discipline Over Porn Emails

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin is facing misconduct charges because he exchanged emails with images of nude women and jokes that were demeaning to religious groups, women and minorities, The Inquirer's Angela Couloumbis, Craig R. McCoy and Mark Fazlollah report. The Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board said those emails had the appearance of impropriety and brought the court into disrepute.

Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, who is embroiled in her own fight to stay in office, was the one who raised the public profile of the fact that Eakin had exchanged pornographic emails with allegedly racial, misogynistic tones. The board already reviewed Eakin's messages and cleared him in the first review. But the JCB revisited the emails after Kane raised the issue again.

The emails were exchanged between judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and other law enforcement officials, the Inquirer reports.

PA Supreme Court Voids Nursing Home Arbitration Agreement

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court voided a nursing home arbitration agreement, The Legal Intelligencer's Ben Seal (my former colleague) reports. The court reasoned that agreements that rely on the National Arbitration Forum code are unenforceable because the NAF no longer accepts arbitration cases.

Nursing home attorneys, however, told Seal that nursing home companies have now "largely stopped identifying sole arbitrators or administrators in their form contracts ... so the impact of the court's narrow ruling on the NAF clause will be contained to a relatively small subset of agreements still utilizing a similar clause."

PA Supreme Court to Examine Civil Forfeiture Issues

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has taken a case that will examine that state's civil forfeiture procedures, The Legal Intelligencer's Lizzy McLellan reports. The case involves the seizure of a Philadelphia woman's home and vehicle that were seized because her son sold marijuana out of her home.

The issue of asset forfeiture is heating up with federal cases also challenging the Philadelphia district attorney's procedures regarding asset forfeitures in drug-dealing cases. Critics say there is a conflict of interest because prosecutors get to keep the money earned from forfeitures in order to fund law enforcement activities.

PA Supreme Court Reinstate Church Official's Conviction

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has reinstated the conviction of the first Catholic Church official to be convicted criminally for the sexual abuse of children for whose welfare he was responsible for but who he did not directly abuse, The Legal Intelligencer's Gina Passarella and Lizzy McLellan report.

The intermediate appellate court found that Monsignor William Lynn could not have been convicted for endangering the welfare of children he never supervised. But Justice Max Baer, writing for the majority of the Supreme Court, found that Lynn"'was a person supervising the welfare of many children because, as a high-ranking official in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he was specifically responsible for protecting children from sexually abusive priests,"' The Legal reports.

Can Nonprofit Lawyers Disclose Diversion of Charitable Assets? PA Supreme Court Takes Up Issue

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has taken up a sealed case to consider whether a lawyer for a nonprofit corporation can break her duty of confidentiality and disclose her concerns to the Attorney General's Office that charitable assets are being unlawfully diverted, The Legal Intelligencer's Lizzy McLellan reports. The anonymous petitioner said the public charity had a fiduciary duty to the public and the charity's lawyer was permitted to disclose the diversion of public charitable resources into private pockets to the attorney general.

Nonprofit practitioner Penina K. Lieber told The Legal that "'attorney-client privilege is not destroyed by the fact that you have a tax-exempt status,'" and the organization itself should approach the attorney general.

PA Supreme Court Nominee Withdraws in Wake of Racially Insensitive Email

One of newly elected Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's nominees for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has withdrawn from consideration, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Centre County Judge Thomas K. Kistler allegedly forwarded an email showing a black man and a black woman during a visit in a prison with the caption "Merry Christmas From the Johnsons." Kistler did not mention the email in withdrawing from consideration.

PA Supreme Court Nominee Under Fire for Racially Insensitive Email

Two of newly elected Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's nominees for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court are under fire, one for allegedly forwarding a racially insensitive email, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Centre County Judge Thomas K. Kistler allegedly forwarded an email showing a black man and a black woman during a visit in a prison with the caption "Merry Christmas From the Johnsons." You can see the meme hereKistler told the newspaper, "that if he did send the e-mail, it was not meant to mock black people but to convey that 'Christmas goes on, even for the people we put in jail.'"

Wolf's other nominee, Ken Gormley, a dean at the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, was the subject of a harassment complaint in 2006, the Inquirer reports.

PA Supreme Court Rejects Lifetime Registration for Juvenile Sex Offenders

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled against lifetime registration for juvenile sex offenders, ruling a state law is unconstitutional because the juveniles have no ability to challenge an irrebuttable presumption they are likely to reoffend, the Associated Press reports: "'We agree with the juveniles that (the law)'s registration requirements improperly brand all juvenile offenders' reputations with an indelible mark of a dangerous recidivist, even though the irrebuttable presumption linking adjudication of specified offenses with a high likelihood of recidivating is not ‘universally true,'” Justice Max Baer wrote for the court.


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