Friday, October 3, 2014

The Cautionary Instruction: Judicial ethics and discipline questions make headlines

Matthew T. Mangino
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
October 3, 2014
The American Judicature Society, a powerful advocate for judicial reform, ethics and research, is shutting its doors after 101 years in existence.
The society was founded in 1913 as part of the progressive movement, in response to demands for legal reform. The Society has long pushed for merit selection of judges and has also championed ethical conduct for judges and discipline for that skirt their oath.
The demise of the American Judicature Society doesn’t mean that ethics enforcement will be relaxed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently issued a ruling determining the high court has the power to suspend judges.
Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille wrote in the court's opinion, "The Supreme Court has the supervisory power, an aspect of its authority at King's Bench, to order the interim suspension without pay of sitting jurists."
The Judicial Conduct Board had argued that 1993 amendments to the state constitution creating the board stripped from the Supreme Court its ability to discipline judges.
"Acting within their respective authorities and jurisdictions, both the Supreme Court and the Court of Judicial Discipline have authority to issue orders of interim suspension and to impose sanctions upon jurists. To the extent that any such orders ultimately or necessarily conflict, the order of the Supreme Court is 'supreme' and controlling," Castille wrote.
Not every judge accused of an ethics violation is removed from the bench. The Judicial Conduct Board filed ethics charges against Erie Judge Stephanie Domitrovich in July. The complaint states that Domitrovich was critical, impatient and disrespectful in the courtroom. She is charged with six counts of judicial misconduct.
The Judicial Conduct Board asked the court to suspend Domitrovich with or without pay while the disciplinary proceedings proceeded. The Court of Judicial Discipline has determined not to suspend Domitrovich. An ethics trial has not yet been scheduled.
All judges are vulnerable when it comes to ethics complaints. A conservative legal firm is accusing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of violating the Judicial Code of Conduct.
At the heart of the claim are recent comments made by Ginsburg about impending gay marriage battles that could come before the Sixth District Court of Appeals, which governs Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
Ginsburg told an audience at the University of Minnesota Law School recently that “there will be some urgency” if the appeals court backs bans on gay marriage, forcing the Supreme Court to act more promptly.
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Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.

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