Appeals Court Refuses to Disqualify Judge in Coroner Case

A Philadelphia-based federal appeals court has refused to disqualify U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab from presiding over the trial of coroner Cyril Wecht, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports.

The former coroner for Allegheny County is accused of using his public office as coroner for private financial gain. Among other things, the government alleges Wecht used county employees for work related to his private practice, according to the opinion (PDF) by the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Wecht denies the charges, saying they stem from a public feud with the district attorney.

The 3rd Circuit also used its supervisory authority to revise a local court rule that limited attorney speech in criminal cases. The court said the rule, which had barred comments that have a “reasonable likelihood of prejudice” on a criminal trial, should be rewritten to bar only comments that have a “substantial likelihood” of prejudice.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada, 501 U.S. 1030 (1991), upheld a “substantial likelihood” standard.

The rule was at issue because of comments made by defense counsel in the case, partly in response to stories suggesting the government would file additional charges for tax fraud and that a Wecht associate had intimidated a witness.

For example, lead counsel Jerry McDevitt commented on the possibility of a superseding indictment, saying, “If you ever lived on a farm, you know that if you take a bunch of cow manure, and you put it on an existing pile of cow manure, all it does is make a bigger smell.”

A hat tip to Howard Bashman of How Appealing, who posted the opinion.

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