Recent Pa. judicial scandals may result in tougher reinstatement standards

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In June, former Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Joseph A. Jaffe, who was sentenced to 27 months in prison in 2003 and disbarred in 2004 for attempting to extort a lawyer who appeared before him, petitioned to have his law license reinstated.

But he withdrew the petition in September in the face of strong opposition from both the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel and at least one current member of the judiciary.

The Pennsylvania bar has a long history of readmitting lawyers and judges who have paid a penalty for their indiscretions, but at a time when a sitting Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice is suspended from the bench while she awaits a criminal trial and the state is still reeling in the aftermath of the "kids-for-cash" judicial scandal in Luzerne County, is the legal community less willing to forgive than it has been in the past?

Alan B. Epstein, a professional liability attorney with Spector Gadon & Rosen in Philadelphia, said he thinks the highly publicized nature of legal scandals like suspended Justice Joan Orie Melvin's criminal case and "kids-for-cash" has damaged the public trust and in turn led to "a greater amount of disciplinary verve" with regard to reinstating lawyers who were suspended or disbarred.

"I think the Disciplinary Board [of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania] has properly viewed those circumstances as a reason to not be forgiving in certain circumstances," he said.

On the other hand, Mr. Epstein said he believes the legal community has simultaneously become more willing to forgive those attorneys and judges whose misconduct was the result of human weaknesses such as drug addiction or mental illness, rather than an abrogation of "some sort of fiduciary duty or duty to the public they serve."

While the Pennsylvania bar may anecdotally appear to be toughening its stance on reinstating disbarred and suspended lawyers, the numbers have yet to bear that out.

According to statistics kept by the Disciplinary Board, eight suspended lawyers and one disbarred lawyer were granted reinstatement in 2010, while none were denied reinstatement that year.

In 2011, the Disciplinary Board granted reinstatement to 11 suspended attorneys and two disbarred attorneys, while denying reinstatement to only one disbarred lawyer.

Robert L. Byer, a partner at Duane Morris in Pittsburgh and a former judge on the state Court of Judicial Discipline, said if there is a shift toward less leniency with regard to lawyers whose misconduct stems from a violation of the public trust, he would welcome it.

"If there is a change in attitude and it's becoming stricter, I think that's a good thing," Mr. Byer said. "It's a good thing for the profession, because we have to maintain the public perception that justice is fair and even-handed, and that lawyers are not going to get any special treatment. Lawyers should be held to a higher standard, in my view, and judges should be held to an even higher standard."

Lynn A. Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts agreed, saying misconduct in the legal community, particularly by judges, has been more visible on the public's radar recently, requiring the legal community to be more wary of the negative effects certain actions may have on the public trust.

In September 2002, according to media reports, Jaffe was charged by federal prosecutors with felony extortion under color of official right for extorting $13,000 from Pittsburgh attorney Joel Persky, whose firm -- which at the time was known as Goldberg, Persky, Jennings and White -- had more than 1,300 asbestos cases before the judge.

Jaffe pled guilty in February 2003 and was sentenced that June by then-Chief Judge Donetta Ambrose of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania to 27 months in federal prison and a $5,000 fine.

Jaffe was disbarred on consent in March 2004, according to records kept by the Disciplinary Board.

Disciplinary Board records show that Jaffe filed a petition for reinstatement of his law license in June of this year and that a hearing was scheduled to take place Sept. 20.

But in an Aug. 2 letter to Disciplinary Board Secretary Elaine M. Bixler, disciplinary counsel Samuel F. Napoli said Jaffe's conduct "was so serious as to preclude his ever being reinstated to the practice of law in Pennsylvania."

Mr. Napoli said in his letter that, in addition to the $13,000 Jaffe pled guilty to taking from Mr. Persky, "he obtained through coercion from another attorney who had matters pending before him a check for $12,500."

"Although he did not plead guilty to the count in the indictment involving that conduct, as part of his plea agreement, he acknowledged responsibility for the conduct charged with regard to that matter," Mr. Napoli said in the letter.

Soon after Mr. Napoli sent the letter, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Administrative Judge Jeffrey A. Manning was quoted by several news outlets as voicing his opposition to Jaffe's reinstatement.

"His conduct was unconscionable and unforgiveable," Judge Manning was quoted as saying by The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "He committed the unpardonable act of a judge, and he should not be given any opportunity to participate in the legal system."

On Sept. 12, just eight days before his scheduled hearing, the Disciplinary Board granted Jaffe's motion to withdraw his petition for reinstatement without prejudice, meaning he's not precluded from filing another petition in the future.

Jaffe is currently working as a paralegal for his attorney, Milton E. Raiford, who was disbarred in 1997, retroactive to 1994, after pleading guilty to charges related to having one of his clients pose as a different client in a drug case.

Mr. Raiford was reinstated to the bar in 2010.

legalnews

Zack Needles: zneedles@alm.com or 215-557-2493.


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