Legal Ethics

Ethics court blocks deal over Pennsylvania supreme court justice's email


Justice J. Michael Eakin. Image from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The second justice on Pennsylvania’s top court to face a legal ethics case over distasteful emails thought he had reached a deal with the state Judicial Conduct Board.

But in a Thursday hearing, the Court of Judicial Discipline refused to let lawyers for either side talk about the pact or put details on the record. It said only agreed facts were sought, not whether Justice J. Michael Eakin violated ethics rules or, if so, what punishment the parties thought appropriate, the Associated Press reports.

Attorney Bill Costopoulos, who is representing the 67-year-old Eakin, said afterward that his client is angry, and appropriately so.

“We were brought here to Pittsburgh on 48 hours’ notice, with a written deal, and we’re not allowed to talk about it,” he stated.

It makes no sense for his client to stipulate to agreed facts prior to a trial scheduled at the end of March, if the stipulation isn’t part of a deal, Costopoulos said.

Meanwhile, little is disputed in the ethics matter, Costopoulos said. Eakin “sent out 18 emails. He’s accepted responsibility. What’s there to try?”

A lawyer for the board described the hearing as “unusual,” but otherwise declined to comment.

Eakin, who is a former Cumberland County district attorney, has apologized for the relevant emails he sent or received. However, as the Court of Judicial Discipline suggested in a statement read in Thursday’s hearing, transparency is critical because of the political implications of the case, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“It is important to note our responsibility goes far beyond an expedited resolution of this case,” said Judge Jack Panella, reading from the statement. “This case is of significant import to the judiciary, the legal profession and most importantly, the general public. Judges must not be swayed by public clamor or fear of criticism.”

At issue is a scandal centered on the state attorney general’s office under a former AG, in which racist and misogynist emails sent to a number of judges, lawyers—including prosecutors—and law enforcement officials. Many emails were sent or received on private accounts, but their presence on government servers prompted a widening and ongoing probe promoted by the current embattled AG, Kathleen Kane.

An initial review of Eakin by the Judicial Conduct Board last year cleared him of wrongdoing and said the relevant emails were only “mildly pornographic,” an earlier Philadelphia Inquirer story notes.

Previously, then-state supreme court Justice Seamus McCaffery announced his retirement when under fire over similar emails, and some attorneys and law enforcement officials have been disciplined or even lost their jobs in connection with the scandal.

Related coverage: “Another justice of Pennsylvania’s top court faces ethics complaint linked to ‘Porngate’” “Pennsylvania justice is suspended for ‘insensitive and inappropriate’ emails in interim order” “Investigators answer questions, sort of, about 2014 probe that cleared Justice Eakin in email case”

See also:

Associated Press: “Kathleen Kane given two weeks to provide PA judicial ethics board with Justice Michael Eakin emails”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “House Dems question whether Kane impeachment process should continue”

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