Erie County Common Pleas judge faces ethics charges

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An Erie County Common Pleas Court judge is facing ethics charges after the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board filed a complaint against her Monday with the state Court of Judicial Discipline.

Judge Stephanie Domitrovich, who graduated from Duquesne Law School in 1979 and 10 years later became the first female judge in Erie County, is accused of six violations of the state Constitution and Code of Judicial Conduct. The board has requested that she be suspended pending resolution of the charges.

She is not facing any criminal counts, and one of her attorneys, Leonard G. Ambrose III, said in a statement that the charges are “devoid of merit.”

“We have assembled a team ... who are all determined to expose the motivation behind the allegations.”

Among those on the team are J. Alan Johnson, a Pittsburgh attorney who previously served as the top federal prosecutor for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

The 37-page Judicial Conduct Board complaint alleges “impatient, undignified, and discourteous behavior” by Judge Domitrovich in four different cases, in which she is accused of yelling, storming off the bench, using sarcasm and finger-pointing at the litigants.

She also is accused of giving unwarranted criticism against court and agency employees during court hearings, and bullying litigants who represent themselves appearing before her.

The Judicial Conduct Board complaint also said that the judge had improper communications about a case showing bias against one party and failed to properly train her new secretary. Then, the judge tried to fire the woman who was out on medical leave.

Another allegation in the complaint is that Judge Domitrovich improperly consulted with her husband, attorney Ronald Susmarksi, about cases before her, even though he was not a court employee. The board also alleges that Judge Domitrovich gave “misleading and false answers” to questions asked of her by its attorneys during an investigative deposition earlier this year.

The complaint characterized the judge as being “impatient, intemperate, belittling, overly critical or disrespectful” of attorneys, litigants, witnesses, county employees and personal staff.

Judge Domitrovich presides over orphans’ court matters, protection from abuse hearings, summary traffic and non-traffic criminal matters, probation revocation and Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition cases.

She was first elected in 1989 and retained in 1999 and 2009.

According to her online judicial biography, Judge Domitrovich was born in Rochester, Beaver County, and got her bacherlor’s degree from Carlow University in 1976 before going to law school.

She also earned a Ph.D. in judicial studies from the University of Nevada at Reno in 2006.

Judge Domitrovich has been active in local, state and national judicial groups. She was secretary of the National Conference of State Trial Judges, and she is chairwoman of the American Bar Association/​Judicial Division’s Children and Family Law Committee.

“In stark contrast to her record of non-judicial public service, the judicial administrative authorities in Erie County have received numerous and consistent complaints regarding Judge Domitrovich’s demeanor and concomitant behavior both on the bench and off the bench,” the complaint said.

The request for an investigation came from Erie County President Judge Ernest DiSantis, according to the board.

He said he could not comment on the pending case but that the complaint speaks for itself.

Judge Domitrovich has 30 days to file an omnibus motion or an answer to the allegations. Discovery must be completed within 30 days after that, and then a trial date would be set.

The Judicial Conduct Board, which serves as a sort of prosecutor, must prove its case to a three-member panel of the Court of Judicial Discipline by clear and convincing evidence. The trial is open to the public.

If the case is proved, the court must decide any possible sanction, up to and including removal from the bench.


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.

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