Dismissal of charges against Wecht doesn't have to affect judge's reputation according to experts
His criminal charges dismissed, former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, with attorney Jerry McDevitt by his side, is able to laugh during a news conference last week.
U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab -- Some of his decisions in the Wecht case were described by appellate court judges as "inappropriate," "troublesome" and "strange and unsettling."
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Getting second-guessed comes with the territory of being a judge.
Sometimes it's the parties in the case or the appeals court. Other times, there's criticism from the media and the general public. Though it's rare, scrutiny could even come from a colleague on the same court.
For the judge that oversaw the criminal case against former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, it was all of the above.
U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab was criticized for the rancorous tone of the legal proceedings in the Wecht case. Judges on the appellate court that reviews his rulings, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, have described some of his decisions in the Wecht case as "inappropriate," "troublesome" and "strange and unsettling." The appeals court removed him from the case after the first trial ended in a hung jury, and U.S. District Judge Sean J. McLaughlin, based in Erie, took over.
Two weeks ago, in an opinion directly contrary to one previously entered by Judge Schwab, Judge McLaughlin threw out two essential search warrants.
With the loss of that evidence, U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan last week announced she was dismissing the charges.
Judges Schwab and McLaughlin declined comment last week. But legal experts said it's quite common for two people to reach different conclusions on the same legal issue, and those differences don't have to affect his reputation.
"It emphasizes the independence of each judge in a district and how there can be disagreement," said Arthur Hellman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
Stephen Burbank, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania law school, said there is no reason to draw any inferences that the two judges reached opposite conclusions.
"It's not cause for reproach that you may get different results," he said. "I imagine a much harder pill to swallow is being removed from the case by the 3rd Circuit."
Dr. Wecht was indicted by a federal grand jury in January 2006 on 84 counts, alleging that he misused his public office to benefit privately. From the very beginning, the case was filled with animosity between the prosecution and defense.
Soon after, that same hostility spilled over into Judge Schwab's courtroom.
"It's not unprecedented for counsel to deliberately goad judges to get them to commit error," Mr. Burbank said.
Eventually, the relationship among former Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen S. Stallings, lead defense attorney Jerry McDevitt and Judge Schwab was so raw that the judge refused to hear any oral arguments in the case and required everything to be handled through written briefs.
In the meantime, Dr. Wecht's attorneys attempted repeatedly to have Judge Schwab removed from the case, alleging bias.
While the 3rd Circuit rejected those efforts, another panel of 3rd Circuit judges eventually reversed course. After Dr. Wecht's first trial ended with a hung jury in April 2008, the case returned to the appeals court. That time, though the defense hadn't asked for it, the panel removed Judge Schwab.
While it was careful not to accuse him of bias, the appeals court did say that all of the parties involved would benefit from fresh eyes on the case and from less rancor in the courtroom.
"This is not appellate review," Mr. Burbank said. "This is taking a fresh look. I don't think the first judge should feel he or she was being reviewed because that's not what was going on.
"The judge was taking a look at the matter afresh."
Former U.S. District Judge Robert J. Cindrich, who stepped down from the bench in 2004, said he doesn't believe that the 3rd Circuit removing Judge Schwab has to have implications for the judge.
Instead, he believes the appeals court saw that the case was heated on both sides.
"The noise was not from the court," he said. "It was from one side or the other hurling fireballs at each other."
It's a judge's job to try to calm down that type of adversarial zeal," Judge Cindrich said. By removing Judge Schwab, the appeals court did that.
"The words they used [to remove Judge Schwab] were really calculated not to criticize the court," he said. "I think they were carefully chosen words." Calling in a fresh set of eyes, the judge continued, is "much, much short of saying there's a lack of impartiality or bias."
He noted his respect for both Judges Schwab and McLaughlin.
"I have no doubt Judge Schwab tried to do his best."
But to Mr. McDevitt, the job done by Judge Schwab fell far short of what is expected on the federal bench.
"It was the most unfair trial I've ever been a participant in to the point where I was embarrassed that that was going on in a federal courtroom," he said.
Mr. McDevitt, who was on the winning side of Judge McLaughlin's order, praised him as having judicial courage to take the opposite view.
"Eventually, it's true, the system will correct errors and get things right," he said. "If Schwab would have done the right thing from day one, Wecht and the city would have been spared the agony this case became."
But Judge Cindrich noted that it's easy for one side or the other in a case to personalize it and develop partisan feelings.
"By its nature, every case a judge hears -- there has to be a winner and a loser," he said.
First Published June 7, 2009 12:00 am