By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Correspondent
For a revision 40 years in the making, the new code is getting scrutiny from some who question how ambitious the judges were in crafting rules they must follow. The anti-nepotism rule has gotten the most attention; the judges exempted family members already on the payroll.
In a written statement introducing the rules, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille’s evoked lofty ideals of the judicial branch:
“For courts in western democracies to effectively render independent and impartial decisions, the public’s confidence in the integrity of the judicial system and its judges is essential,” he wrote. “The Code of Judicial Conduct is designed to foster that confidence by assisting judges in their adherence to the highest judicial and personal conduct standards. It also establishes a basis for disciplinary agencies to regulate judges’ conduct.”
All sounds good, doesn’t it?
The revamped code is the first major revision to the rules for judges in Pennsylvania in 40 years.
Among its biggest changes are the anti-nepotism provision; a rule barring judges from serving on commercial boards; and a provision that calls on judges to recuse themselves if they’ve received sizable campaign donations from attorneys involved in cases before them.
The court took different approaches to these measures. Judges have until July 2015 to step down from any corporate boards. If they have relatives on the payroll? They apparently get to keep them.
“The code is silent” on whether existing cases of nepotism will be allowed to persist, said Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Administrative Office of the Courts.
“They granted themselves immunity,” said critic Eric Epstein at Rock the Capital. “It grandfathers in unethical behavior.”
This is not an imagined problem.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review identified six Allegheny County court judges who have family members on the payroll.
Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery’s wife works for him, too. The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported that the FBI probed referral fees McCaffery’s wife collected for directing clients to law firms.
Castille’s wife is also on the payroll as his aide.
“The Supreme Court has given ‘family court’ a tawdry meaning,” Epstein said. “When we said ‘family court,’ we didn’t mean they could hire relatives.”
It’s not just judges who turn to family when hiring or promoting in Pennsylvania legal circles. Attorney General Kathleen Kane promoted her sister shortly after taking office. She also hired her cousin.
The judicial code does not cover the Attorney General, Heinz said.
It does specify that nepotism is the appointment of any relative “within the third degree of relationship.” A third-degree relative is typically defined as a first-cousin, great-grandparent or great-grandchild.
The bigger problem, as Epstein sees it, is that the code of conduct simply wasn’t ambitious enough.
He would have preferred it to have tackled the problem of judges accepting perks that undermine the public’s faith in those on the bench. These perks include the use of taxpayer-funded luxury vehicles by Supreme Court justices.
“This (code) seems to deal with hiring practices,” Epstein said. “It’s not a bad thing. These are things that need to be cleaned up. But an ethics code should be all-encompassing.”
John Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter@cnhipa