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Pennsylvania Supreme Court's 3 justices-elect appraise its battered image, need for changes


HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — The past few years have been a difficult and sometimes humiliating period for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, as one headline-grabbing scandal after another has scuffed its image and thinned its ranks.

In 2013, Justice Joan Orie Melvin resigned after being convicted of public corruption for using her state-paid staff for political campaign work.

Last year, Justice Seamus McCaffery stepped down after his fellow justices suspended him for his involvement in a scandal involving email exchanges containing pornography or sexually explicit content. The emails were released by Attorney General Kathleen Kane, whose law license was indefinitely suspended by the Supreme Court in September after she was charged with perjury and other offenses in an unrelated case.

A sitting justice, Michael Eakin, is currently under investigation by the Judicial Conduct Board to determine whether his role in exchanging raunchy emails with attorneys, judges and other public officials constitutes professional misconduct.

The scandals have prompted the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the head of Philadelphia Bar Association, Philadelphia's City Council and others to call for investigations.

"It breaks my heart that the public's view of our court is based on what happens in isolated cases," Justice Debra Todd told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in a story published Thursday. "It bothers me greatly. It has been a troubled time for the court."

But change is in the air. Newly elected justices — all Democrats — are poised to fill an unprecedented three vacant seats in January, bringing the court up to its full complement of seven elected members for the first time in 32 months. Democrats will hold a 5-2 majority.

What impact that will have on the public image of the state's highest court remains to be seen.

In telephone interviews this week with The Associated Press, the newcomers — Superior Court judges David Wecht and Christine Donohue, who will remain based in Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia Judge Kevin Dougherty — expressed optimism the newly constituted court will work through its problems.

"You'll finally see closure," Dougherty predicted, citing the strong bond the three incoming justices built during the campaign. "I think we have developed a sense of collegiality and camaraderie that's really essential."

Donohue said the justices need to work together to resolve internal conflicts among them.

"It's a family in a sense," she said. "Individual egos really have no strong base in a body such as the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania."

Donohue said the email scandals will take time to play out and that she hopes for a thoughtful resolution, not necessarily a speedy one.

"Until those issues are resolved to the satisfaction of the public, they're going to be an issue for the Supreme Court," she said.

Wecht said the court needs to concentrate on the legal issues before it and to delegate more of its administrative responsibilities to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

"We need a court that's actually focused on jurisprudence," he said. The Supreme Court "has too often looked more like some kind of a super management committee than a court."

Wecht campaigned on a five-point judicial reform plan that includes a ban on gifts to judges and mandatory ethics training for judicial candidates, but acknowledged that he cannot "snap my fingers and make these things happen." He said he would seek support from his new colleagues on those proposals.

"I will be patient, but I will also be persistent," he said.

Peter Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at pjackson@ap.org.

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