Pennsylvania Supreme Court has Updated its Code of Judicial Conduct

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by: Jamie Inferrera, Staff Writer

In recent years, political corruption scandals have been filling the pages of Pennsylvania’s newspapers within all three branches of Pennsylvania’s government. The media spotlight seems to have shined brightly on the judiciary, which saw the resignation of a state Supreme Court Justice last year for using her elected office and taxpayer-funded staff for political purposes.  Also in 2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reportedly launched a probe into referral fees earned by the top aide and wife of state Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery. Additionally, in 2009, a federal grand jury returned a 48 count indictment against two former Luzerne County judges who were later convicted in connection with the “kids for cash” scandal.

While not said to be directly in response to these actions and allegations, in January 2014, the state Supreme Court announced that it has updated its Code of Judicial Conduct for the first time since the early 1990s. The changes were adopted unanimously. The updated document is said to be modeled after a 2007 version by the American Bar Association and is nearly three times the length of the previous Code.

“For courts in western democracies to effectively render independent and impartial decisions, the public’s confidence in the integrity of the judicial system and its judges is essential,” said Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille in a written statement.

A substantial addition to the Code includes language to expressly prohibit nepotism. The new language specifically states that “[i]n making administrative appointments and hiring decisions, a judge: shall exercise the power of appointment impartially and on the basis of merit; and shall avoid nepotism, favoritism, and unnecessary appointments.” Both Chief Justice Castille and Justice McCaffery have their wives employed as their top aides. However, the change is silent on immediate family members currently employed by the judiciary.

A provision has also been added to explicitly prohibit the “use of court staff, facilities, or other court resources in a campaign for judicial office.” Judges will now also be prohibited from sitting on corporate boards. Additionally, judges will be required to recuse themselves from cases where a party, a party’s lawyer, or the law firm of a party’s lawyer has made a direct or indirect campaign contribution in an “amount that would raise a reasonable concern about the fairness or impartiality of the judge’s consideration.”

The Pennsylvania State Ethics Act, which first took effect in 1979, already addresses several of the issues contained in the updated Code of Judicial Conduct. The Ethics Act was originally intended to apply to the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of Pennsylvania state government. However, a court ruling in the 1980s exempted judges. Additionally, in 2000, a ruling in L.J.S v. State Ethics Commission, 744 A.2d 798 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2000), extended the exemption to staff and officers of the judiciary.

Lynn Marks, executive director for Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, praised the “much needed” reforms in a statement on the organization’s website. Pennsylvania Bar Association President Forest N. Myers applauded the new code in a public statement stating they are “pleased that the court has adopted a code that will enhance the public’s confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the judiciary and will assist judges in adhering to the highest ethical standards.”

The majority of the provisions in the new Code of Judicial Conduct will take effect on July 1, 2014. Judges will be expected to resign from corporate boards by July 1, 2015. While the Code of Judicial Conduct is not a criminal statute, judges may be suspended or removed from the bench for violations. The updated Judicial Code of Conduct can be viewed through the website of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania:

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