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Suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice retires due to porn emails

| Monday, Oct. 27, 2014, 12:28 p.m.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery
Submitted
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery stepped down Monday, agreeing not to seek elective judicial office or appointment as a senior judge because of disclosures that he sent or received hundreds of pornographic emails.

The Judicial Conduct Board in return dropped its investigation of McCaffery.

McCaffery, 64, and his spokesman were unavailable for comment. His retirement letter, submitted to Gov. Tom Corbett, said his public service “has all been a great honor and privilege, which I deeply cherish.”

McCaffery's immediate departure opens three seats on the court for the 2015 election. Chief Justice Ronald Castille, 70, must retire on Dec. 31 under its mandatory retirement policy. The third is the seat held by Justice Correale Stevens, whom Corbett appointed when former Justice Joan Orie Melvin of Marshall resigned upon her felony corruption conviction last year.

“I'll definitely take a look at it,” said Stevens, 68. He said he made no promise not to run, something that's often sought during Senate confirmation.

When the court suspended McCaffery, a Philadelphia Democrat, from his $200,202 post last week, he said he expected to be cleared of wrongdoing and reinstated to the bench. The court vacated its suspension.

The conduct board, which began investigating McCaffery months ago, said in a statement that “it is in the best interest of the judiciary and the judicial system of the Commonwealth to dismiss its investigations.” The most serious sanction it could have given McCaffery was removal and a ban on holding judicial office.

Corbett declined to comment on McCaffery's retirement and would not say whether he'll appoint a replacement.

“We just got this,” he said. “I haven't sat down with my staff.”

McCaffery followed a predictable pattern of human nature, an analyst said.

“Your first reaction is to go on defense when a problem like this breaks. You want to fight,” said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “Like many things in life, when you have time to reflect, you realize what would be involved in protecting yourself through this. He did the cost-benefit analysis, and it was weighted in favor of stepping down.”

When suspending him, the court said McCaffery transmitted “extremely disturbing” emails from a private account to a former agent in the Attorney General's Office in 2008 and 2009. The emails were shared among some prosecutors and agents.

The court's suspension order outlined other allegations against McCaffery, including improper contact with a Philadelphia Traffic Court official about a citation issued to his wife. It said he may have authorized his wife to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in referral fees from lawyers while she was his administrative assistant.

“The real losers are the people of Pennsylvania,” because the truth won't come out, said Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University Law School. “This has the effect of sweeping all the allegations under the rug — not only against McCaffery but the chief justice.”

Castille pushed to suspend McCaffery, who claimed it was driven by “malicious intent.”

Castille has acknowledged he wanted to remove McCaffery, calling him a “sociopath.” He said the emails caused the court to be “held up to public ridicule.”

McCaffery might have retired because he did something “far worse” than what was alleged — or, he did nothing wrong and wanted to end it, Ledewitz said.

The Republican-controlled Legislature will convene one day in November to elect leaders. Senate confirmation of any court appointee would require a two-thirds vote, a deal by Republicans and Democrats. The session ends Nov. 30.

Corbett could nominate people to fill McCaffery's and Castille's seats until the November 2015 election. If he declines to do so and Democrat Tom Wolf wins the gubernatorial election, Wolf would make the appointments when taking office in January.

Pennsylvania Bar Association President Francis X. O'Connor said restoring public confidence in the court's integrity is paramount. The bar “applauds all parties involved for their prompt resolution of this troubling distraction from the business of the Supreme Court,” O'Connor said in a statement.

A former 20-year Philadelphia police officer, McCaffery had blamed a “lapse of judgment” for sending the emails.

McCaffery joined Philadelphia Municipal Court in 1993. In 2003, voters elected him to Superior Court and in 2007, to the Supreme Court. He served in the Marine Corps and Air Force Reserve. Senior judge status is a part-time appointment by the court for retired jurists.

Brad Bumted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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