In re Roca, In re Segal: No, we can’t just ignore the Constitution
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is, perhaps, the most powerful state Supreme Court within its own jurisdiction. Given comprehensive power over all attorney discipline matters by the state Constitution, our Supreme Court has struck down validly-passed statutes that transgress this judicial power. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court also maintains “King’s Bench” authority to step into any case at any time and render a decision on any matter, great or small, within a case. Other jurisdictions limit their high courts by practice or rule.
These cases call on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to determine whether the Commonwealth’s Constitution limits SCOPA’s power to re-consider the punishments handed down by the Court of Judicial Discipline (CJD), and whether its common law King’s Bench power gives the Court power to intervene where the Constitution says it cannot.
Three judges were caught up in various schemes involving phone calls to one another and receiving phone calls from government officials asking for special favors in various cases, including entering continuances, re-opening cases closed by default, and granting or denying motions. The calls were recorded by the FBI pursuant to criminal investigations and then turned over to the CJD.
One judge resigned amidst the scandal; the remaining judges were removed from the bench and barred from holding future judicial office. Judge Segal’s offenses seem to be much more serious, involving an ongoing and persistent pattern of ex parte phone calls, favors and other judicial misconduct. Judge Roca’s conduct was limited to one instance in which she requested a favor from another judge for a family member. Roca argued that her conduct did not warrant the harsh penalties imposed on her, and that the Court should moderate her punishment in consideration of the punishment imposed for past crimes.
These cases were argued together, but ruled on separately. I will focus on In re Roca because its legal argument is much more interesting, and because the ruling in In re Segal follows a fortiore.
Majority by CJ Saylor: King’s Bench power does not override the Constitution
Pennsylvania’s Chief Justice, speaking for the 4-3 majority, makes the final ruling on this judicial misconduct. The Chief Justice rejects the notion that the Court’s common law King’s Bench power allows it to step into a proceeding for which the Commonwealth’s Constitution strictly limits review. The Court is limited to reviewing the record to ensure the facts found were not erroneous and that the punishment inflicted is not unlawful. It is not the place of the Court to trample the prerogative of the people or override the Constitution.
Relying on the plain language of Article V, § 18(c)(2), the Court declares that its standard of review is limited to overturning a judgment which is clearly contrary to law. The Court may not second-guess the punishment prescribed by the CJD, nor may it replace CJD’s judgment with its own. The Court may not ignore the Constitution in favor of its common law King’s Bench power.
In response to the claim that the CJD exceeded its authority in removing the Judge, the Supreme Court rules, “The CJD has wide discretion to fashion the appropriate penalty once it finds a predicate violation.” The Court opens the door to the idea that a punishment could be so beyond the pale of appropriateness, but does not make clear what that punishment would be.
Finally, the Court rejects Roca’s claim that she should not face such a severe punishment because it is unfair to her. The primary purpose of Judicial Discipline is to maintain the public’s confidence in the judiciary and to repair the public’s perceptions where misbehavior has brought the courts into disrepute. Thus, Roca’s claims of a personal right to more merciful consideration fall against the public concern.
Segal’s situation is far more serious, and Segal’s arguments are not as well developed. The Court’s majority affirmed the convictions of both judges.
Dissent by Donohue
Justice Donohue dissents, appalled at the “breathtakingly narrow definition of our standard of review,” which is “patently violative of the United States Constitution,” argues that the Court should engage a much broader inquiry into the conviction, and consider these appeals like any other. She urges that the Court should ensure the equal administration of justice for every citizen—including disgraced former judges.
The Pennsylvania Constitution made the CJD an independent body capable of exercising its discretion in determining what to do with judges who had violated the public trust. SCOPA’s power to review these decisions is accordingly limited. This is one of the few places where our Supreme Court’s power is limited.