Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Cappy yesterday said a lawsuit alleging that he negotiated a plaintiff's rights in exchange for a larger paycheck for himself and fellow justices was "preposterous," and he criticized both the League of Women Voters, who filed the suit, and its lawyer.
A second Supreme Court justice and the House Republican leader yesterday issued angry denunciations of the lawsuit, which they called frivolous and even slanderous.
The suit, which in many ways mirrors an earlier case that was dismissed by a federal court, marked the latest round in efforts by reform groups to pry open the courts and force legislators and justices alike to the witness stand. Three years ago, the contentious legislative pay raise issue triggered an upheaval in Harrisburg.
Yesterday, it was Mr. Cappy, who retired in January, who erupted, issuing a two-paragraph statement about the suit.
"I do not understand why a respected organization such as the League of Women Voters would associate itself with this irresponsible lawsuit, especially since the charges consist of falsehoods, speculation and innuendo," read Mr. Cappy's statement, which was released through the court's administrative offices.
The allegations are these: In 2005, as members of all four legislative caucuses worked to put together a bill granting pay raises that in some instances approached 30 percent, then-Justice Cappy met with members of one of the caucuses to lobby for a raise for the high court and the rest of the state's judges.
At the time, the League of Women Voters had filed a lawsuit with the state courts to overturn Act 71, which legalized casino gambling in the state.
The lawsuit quotes several unnamed legislators, one of whom gave this account:
"[A]t some point during the Pay Raise Negotiations defendant proclaimed to members of one of the legislative caucuses that 'he needed the pay raise to secure the votes of Republican justices' on cases important to that legislative caucus," the suit says.
The suit quotes another legislator, described in the complaint as "House Member A," saying he "had run into Justice [Ronald] Castille at the Golden Sheaf restaurant at the Harrisburg Hilton Hotel and inquired about the Act 71 Litigation, to which Justice Castille gave a 'wink and a nod' to House Member A which he/she interpreted as clearly indicating and communicating that Act 71 would be held constitutional."
That same unidentified House member is also reported in the suit as having "witnessed Justices Castille and Eakin leaving a closed door meeting" held in the offices of then-Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney.
Yesterday, Justice Castille, who succeeded Mr. Cappy as chief justice, issued a furious response, calling the lawsuit "ludicrous in every respect," saying it "slanders the entire Supreme Court of Pennsylvania" and suggesting that "the filing parties may have subjected themselves to sanctions, and the attorney may have subjected himself to disciplinary action."
Mr. Smith issued a statement calling the suit's assertions of a closed-door meeting "reckless and beyond frivolous."
"I was an outspoken opponent of the slots bill," Mr. Smith added.
Two years ago, Paul A. Rossi, acting on behalf of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, alleged collusion between the Supreme Court and legislative leaders in the passage of the pay raise. That suit was dismissed by U.S. District Court in Harrisburg. Common Cause is currently appealing that decision to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The latest suit, as did the former, relies on unidentified legislators who purportedly gave inside information to plaintiffs about the handling of the pay raise issue. Mr. Rossi, who is now the league's attorney for the suit, said the league only became aware on May 19, 2006, after the Common Cause suit was filed, about purported suggestions about pending cases being at stake.
At the time, Mr. Rossi said, they did not realize that Justice Cappy could have been referring to their case.
The league filed its suit Monday, the date the statute of limitations on that information was to expire, Mr. Rossi said.
"Plaintiff contends it is a violation of plaintiff's right to due process of law under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution for a judge to suggest a desired legislative outcome would have any impact on a case pending before that judge or justice even if the suggestion was merely a bluff, a misstatement, slip-of-the-tongue, or, even if the decision was not actually altered by the desired legislative outcome," the suit contends.
The accuracy of the unnamed legislator's account of Justice Cappy's purported remarks was hard to determine. Mr. Rossi acknowledged that the person was not present in the room during the comments.
"It's one removed by that, but it's a chain by which it's still admissible evidence. It's not third-, fourth-hand removed. It's from inside the caucus," Mr. Rossi said.
He declined yesterday to identify any of the legislative witnesses, suggesting that could come during the discovery phase of the case.
"Why don't I name them? Because members who speak out of turn have hammers brought down upon them," Mr. Rossi said. "I spoke to them and they re-verified everything they alleged. I said there will be depositions and I believe these members will testify truthfully in the depositions."
Correction/Clarification (published 5/22/08) -- The first name of Paul Rossi, attorney for the League of Women Voters in its lawsuit against former Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Cappy, was omitted in a story yesterday. Dennis Roddy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1965.