Suspension of Pa. Judge Charged with Insurance Fraud Questioned

By | September 10, 2007

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision last month to suspend an appellate judge who had just been indicted on federal insurance fraud charges has renewed debate over a constitutional question: Does the high court really have that power?

The justices said they were acting “to protect and preserve the integrity” of Pennsylvania’s justice system when they put Superior Court Judge Michael T. Joyce on indefinite paid suspension two days after charges were announced.

It was at least the fourth time the Supreme Court has taken action against a judge since voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1993 that established a tougher system to investigate and punish wayward judges, headed by the Court of Judicial Discipline.

It replaced the Judicial Inquiry and Review Board, which critics said lacked meaningful authority.

The amendment gave the Court of Judicial Discipline exclusive power to suspend judges and to determine when not to suspend a judge, argues Duquesne Law School professor Bruce Ledewitz, a frequent Supreme Court critic.

“What if the Court of Judicial Discipline had announced its decision in the Joyce case that the charges in the indictment were insufficiently serious to warrant suspension, and then the Supreme Court suspended the judge?” Ledewitz said. “Wouldn’t the conflict then be crystal clear?”

Doubts about the Supreme Court’s power arose in 1993, when one of the court’s own members was relieved of his duties, with pay, by his court colleagues amid allegations he improperly obtained prescription drugs.

Justice Rolf Larsen’s lawyer, Bill Costopoulos, said he ultimately concluded that both the Supreme Court and the Court of Judicial Discipline seemed to be empowered to act. Under the constitution, the Supreme Court has exclusive control over the practice of law.

“We did look at it, because I of course would have liked to have seen him remain on the bench, pending his troubles,” Costopoulos said. “But we just opted not to make an issue of it because it appeared they have the authority.”

Larsen was later convicted of a drug-related conspiracy charge in Allegheny County and impeached by the General Assembly for improperly discussing a case with a lawyer. He was permanently removed from office.

A few years later, the Supreme Court suspended a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge who had engaged in a weeklong work stoppage to protest being assigned low-level cases.

Judge Bernard J. Avellino, a tart-tongued South Philadelphian who once called the victim of an attempted rape “coyote ugly,” challenged the high court’s authority to intervene in his fight with higher-ups within the city’s court system.

He lost that battle and the Supreme Court suspended him without pay for three months over his “obstinate contentiousness.” Avellino later resigned on the eve of a Court of Judicial Discipline ethics hearing.

Questions about the role of the Court of Judicial Discipline again arose in 2002, when the Supreme Court suspended Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge H. Patrick McFalls Jr. without pay for a month, saying he exhibited “unjustified defiance” of the court system’s authority.

Over a several-month period, McFalls was arrested in Florida for allegedly failing to pay a cab fare, reported his $60,000 Mercedes Benz as stolen after he gave it away to an admiring parking attendant, reportedly exposed his buttocks on a Pittsburgh street and was charged with drunken driving.

McFalls didn’t dispute the Supreme Court’s authority, but argued it was preferable that his case first go to the Judicial Conduct Board, which investigates and prosecutes cases before the Court of Judicial Discipline. The Supreme Court disagreed, and McFalls later resigned.

West Chester lawyer William H. Lamb, a former Supreme Court justice who currently heads up the Court of Judicial Discipline, noted that guilt or innocence was not addressed in the order to suspend Joyce. He called it the right decision.

“Put it this way: were I still on the Supreme Court I would not have hesitated to do what the Supreme Court did here,” he said.

Joyce’s lawyer, David Ridge, did not return phone messages. Joyce has denied the charges but has pulled his name off the November retention ballot.

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