Courts of misconduct: The new code is good but could have been better

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week issued a new code of conduct for judges. It’s about time.

This sorely needed rewrite of the 40-year-old code comes on the heels of rampant abuse by judges. The most notorious case was right at the top, where former Justice Joan Orie Melvin was convicted of abusing her office by using government staffers and resources to run her election campaigns.

Sadly, that is not the only recent example, and misdeeds were not limited to the high court. Allegheny County taxpayers have seen so much nepotism on the local bench the practice was almost routine, with former county President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel particularly adept at hiring her relatives.

The new code, which goes into effect July 1, is based on a model code created by the American Bar Association in 2007. Among the important changes:

• It imposes a ban on judges sitting on corporate boards, lucrative for judges but problematic because of the appearance that those entities will have greater favor with the courts.

• It strengthens the rules for when judges must disqualify themselves from hearing specific cases, particularly when a lawyer or law firm involved in a case “has made a direct or indirect contribution to the judge’s campaign.” Superior Court Judge Anne E. Lazarus, who chaired the rule-writing panel, said members didn’t want to set a specific sum because such a threshold might prove easy to sidestep. Instead, it says the donations that would trigger recusal should be an amount “that would raise a reasonable concern” about fairness. That may or may not prove sufficient.

• It says hiring and appointments of lawyers to represent clients should be made fairly, based on merit, and that a judge “shall avoid nepotism, favoritism and unnecessary appointments.” It defines nepotism as appointment of a judge’s spouse or domestic partner, relatives “within a third degree of relationship” with them or their spouses or partners. Unfortunately, “shall avoid” is a fuzzy term that invites abuse, and the new rules don’t apply to relatives who already have court jobs — good news for them, but not for the public.

A tough code that spells out what is expected of judges is only a first step toward restoring confidence in the judiciary. New rules are effective only if they are rigorously enforced.

We’ll know soon enough if that will happen on Pennsylvania’s courts.

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