P.J. D’Annunzio, The Legal Intelligencer
February 10, 2015
As part of his bid for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court bench, Superior Court Judge David N. Wecht issued a five-point plan aimed at clamping down on judicial corruption.
Wecht’s plan for “revamping judicial conduct and transparency” issued Monday outlined five ethics-oriented measures from an outright ban on all gifts to judges to televised courtroom proceedings.
A Democrat from Allegheny County, Wecht told The Legal the goal of the plan is to address both the realities and perceptions of the state’s judicial system.
“I think the perception of the Pennsylvania courts is very low and there is a need to assure the public that the judges, and those that work for them, understand that this is a public trust and that the work is taken seriously,” Wecht said.
While Wecht said he wants Pennsylvania residents to know that the courts have left “the Dark Ages,” his impetus for developing the plan came from those same dark times the court has endured in recent years.
“It’s not any one incident in isolation, it’s incident after incident, event after event,” Wecht said. “Cumulatively all of these things have led us to a low point in our judicial history.”
The first point of Wecht’s plan calls for a ban on all gifts to judges, no matter how small. Judges should not use their positions to “reap profit,” according to the plan, and “gifts to judges, be they golf junkets or trinkets, should be banned completely.”
Nepotism is also targeted in Wecht’s initiative: point two states the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct’s existing regulations on judges hiring family members aren’t good enough.
“While the code bans judges from hiring their relatives in the future, it says (and does) nothing about the fact that many judges already have their relatives on the public payroll, and that this nepotism continues unchecked,” Wecht’s plan said. “This has to stop. Our Supreme Court should impose a reasonable sunset period (perhaps five years) to allow judges’ family members to find other work—work outside the chambers and courtrooms of their judicial kin.”
As for cases when a judge’s impartiality is in question, the third point of Wecht’s plan requires judges explain in writing their rulings relating to calls for recusal.
“The code,” the plan said, “should be revised to require judges whose recusal is sought to state on the record their reasons for granting or denying the motion, so all circumstances can be viewed in the light of day, both by the reviewing court and by the public as a whole.”
Mandatory ethics classes for all judicial candidates, the fourth point, are also prescribed for curbing potential misconduct.
“Recent events have shown that those to whom this power is granted can go seriously astray,” the plan said, adding that a knowledge of best practices can go a long way.
Lastly, the plan recommends that all court proceedings should be televised to promote openness. But the public’s access would not be unlimited.
According to the plan, judges would have discretion as to whether sensitive aspects of cases would be aired, including issues involving “child abuse, certain sexual offenses, matters requiring a measure of confidentiality, and other special situations.”
Wecht said he expects his plan to be met with a certain measure of resistance, but added that reform does not occur overnight.
“Dripping water wears away rock,” Wecht said. Pointing to his reform efforts on the Superior Court, he added, “Many of my reform proposals have met with some resistance and that’s to be expected. Encountering resistance should never discourage people from speaking to reform.”
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said the creation of a plan like Wecht’s represents a departure from typical judicial campaigns—a departure that could go on to influence the theme of the race.
“We could have one of the most reformist Supreme Court elections in modern history, simply because what Wecht has done conceivably forces other candidates to address these issues,” Madonna said.
In fact, Madonna said the issues presented in Wecht’s plan could spark a full-scale debate on court reform.
Whether Wecht’s five-point plan bears fruit is another matter. According to Madonna, it’s difficult to tell what the sitting justices as well as the candidates will think of the proposed reforms.
“Where the court’s concerned there is no certainty,” Madonna said.
He added, “We’re going to end up with six people running, three from each party; let’s look at the debate and see how many of them come on board and with what intensity.”
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