Court cleanup: State justices act on behalf of stronger ethics

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It may be a case of shutting the barn door after the horse has fled, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has barred state appellate court staff from performing private legal work for compensation. That is a door that needed to be shut.

According to The Associated Press, the high court's order was issued last Wednesday and affects 404 staff members of the state's appellate court system. The order did not mention Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, whose recent troubles appear to supply the context for the action.

In June, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the FBI is investigating Justice McCaffery over fees paid to his wife and chief aide, Lise Rapaport, for referring clients to personal injury law firms (an attorney for the justice and his wife denied the existence of a probe).

The paper said the probe is investigating 19 referral fees and that Ms. Rapaport, who is paid $75,395 by the state, received an $821,000 referral fee in 2012 after a Philadelphia law firm successfully settled a large medical-malpractice case. Such referral fees are legal in Pennsylvania and Justice McCaffery has made no secret of his wife's activities.

Still, the state Ethics Act bars public officials from using their authority "for the private pecuniary benefit" of their families. Even if that is not an issue here, at the very least there is the appearance of a conflict of interest. Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille is already on record as criticizing the referrals. He told the Inquirer in March that he was troubled that a court aide would be collecting fees while "employed in a judicial chamber."

The updated rule allows pro bono work and was promulgated quickly. It did not go through the usual committee to review rules, but was "published in the interests of justice and efficient administration" -- and rightly so. In a system that already allows too many temptations due to would-be judges being pressured to seek political contributions from lawyers who may appear before them later, this door had to be slammed shut.



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