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Pa. Supreme Court Justice Eakin retires amid criticism over lewd emails

| Tuesday, March 15, 2016, 11:39 a.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Justice Michael Eakin waits for his hearing to start at the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Justice Michael Eakin and wife, Heidi, leave a hearing at the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Justice Michael Eakin's attorney, William C. Costopoulos, speaks to the media after a hearing at the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016.

HARRISBURG — Suspended Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin stepped down Tuesday after months of criticism about racy and lewd emails he exchanged, his attorney said.

William C. Costopoulos made the announcement during a news conference in the lobby of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center. He said Eakin hopes to maintain his pension, but he said there is no deal with the Court of Judicial Discipline.

“It has been a privilege and honor for him to serve the judiciary and the people of Pennsylvania,” Costopoulos said. “For six years, he served on the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. For 14 years, he has served on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Every opinion he has ever written or participated in has been legally analyzed and scrutinized, and the conclusion, which has been stipulated to by the Judicial Conduct Board, is that his work product and opinions are completely devoid of bias or prejudice. We have lost one of the finest jurists of our court in the recent past,” Costopoulos said.

Costopoulos said Eakin is retiring “for the sake of his family and the judiciary.”

The Judicial Conduct Board, an ethics panel for judges, in a complaint last year said Eakin, 67, a Republican, “detracted from the dignity of the office.”

The 52-page complaint said messages Eakin sent or received included a video about busloads of “sluts” crashing in California, jokes about domestic violence and golfer Tiger Woods' black and Asian background.

Eakin's decision to step down “was in the best interests of all, especially our justice system and the public's perception of it,” said Lynn Marks, executive director of the Philadelphia nonprofit Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. “The content of the emails raised serious questions about his judgment. Since judges are appropriately held to the highest standards of integrity, the court cannot tolerate behavior by any justice that is not entirely beyond reproach.”

A three-judge panel of the Court of Judicial Discipline, a separate panel that decides cases of misconduct against judges, last month in Pittsburgh was adamant about not accepting a settlement related to Eakin's suspension. The court did not allow the proposed deal — which was reached with the help of a mediator — to be aired in court, and Eakin's attorney did not explain what it entailed. That case still is open, Costopoulos said.

Eakin's trial on disciplinary charges is set for March 29, but “there is nothing to try,” Costopoulos said. A spokeswoman for the judicial court said officials had no comment.

Eakin has apologized repeatedly for the emails.

Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor said, “Justice Eakin has been a longtime colleague and friend, and I am personally saddened by the circumstances of his retirement.”

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said he will seek advice from the Republican-controlled state Senate and nominate a replacement for Eakin “in due time.” Eakin's term expires in 2022. Under the law, he would have faced mandatory retirement at the end of 2018 at age 70.

His retirement leaves the seven-member court with five Democrats and one Republican.

The governor referred to Eakin's resignation as “another reminder of why we must all work with urgency to restore the public's trust in their government as well as the integrity of the judicial system.”

State officials were not aware of any precedent whereby the disciplinary court moved to revoke a pension of a former judge. Public officials convicted of certain crimes automatically forfeit pensions, but Eakin is not accused of crimes.

The final determination could be up to the state pension board. A provision of the state constitution appears to give the judicial court authority to remove a pension if the court determines the judge damaged the court's reputation.

Eakin's pension could be in jeopardy, said Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent's College. But Eakin could argue that he no longer is a judge and therefore is beyond the court's jurisdiction, Antkowiak said.

Most of the emails were received, not sent, by Eakin, Costopoulos has said. On the witness stand in December, Eakin, holding back tears, said, “What I sent I sent, and I am sorry for that beyond words. The media circus cannot be ignored, but it is not public opinion.”

Eakin is the second Supreme Court justice to be caught up in a scandal over emails that some people considered offensive and pornographic.

Seamus McCaffery also was suspended by the court. He retired in 2014 but managed to keep his pension. Eakin contended then that McCaffery tried to “blackmail” him over the emails.

The email scandal was revived last fall when Attorney General Kathleen Kane renewed a complaint to the conduct board, which had dismissed a complaint against Eakin in 2014. Many of the emails were not disclosed publicly, she said.

Kane faces charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and official oppression, for allegedly leaking secret grand jury material to embarrass a critic. She contends an “old boys' network” tried to prevent pornography from being publicly released. Kane has released some emails against opponents, but refused to agree to release all emails.

After her second criminal arraignment in Montgomery County in October, Kane contended Eakin's emails were “racial, misogynistic and pornographic.” Eakin denied the emails included porn. His wife, Heidi Eakin, an attorney who works for Costopoulos, has defended him publicly.

“This is not porngate,” Costopoulos said. “It has never been porngate.”

“Unraveling an old boys' network trafficking in hate-filled emails is an ugly and painful process,” Kane spokesman Chuck Ardo said. “No one understands this better than the attorney general. In the end, however, she believes it is essential to restore integrity and honor to our system of justice.”

Testifying as an expert on Eakin's behalf, attorney Sam Stretton said, “There's not a man alive who hasn't viewed pornography or laughed at an off-color joke.”

Eakin participated in a unanimous ruling to suspend Kane's law license after Montgomery County prosecutors charged her.

Brad Bumsted and Natasha Lindstrom are Tribune-Review staff writers.

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