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Revised anti-nepotism policy lets Allegheny County judges keep family in jobs

Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 10:42 p.m.
 

A toughened anti-nepotism policy will prevent Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judges from hiring any more of their relatives, but the kin they already employ can keep their jobs, the new rules say.

The court this week updated its policy, putting it in line with a state Supreme Court code of conduct restricting the hiring of relatives that took effect this month. At least six county judges employ relatives.

Hailed as a win for transparency in judicial ethics, the policy is meant to make the selection and retention of employees impartial and fair, said President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning. The policy grandfathers in relatives of judges who now work in the court system. It was unclear how many that affects.

“The new rules make it clear: We're avoiding nepotism,” Manning said on Wednesday. “Frankly, it may not necessarily be fair all the time. If you take the policy and apply it to national politics, Robert F. Kennedy would have never been the attorney general of the United States.”

In Allegheny County, several judges have family members working for them, including Judges Donna Jo McDaniel, Terrence O'Brien, Paul Lutty Jr., Donald Machen, Dwayne Woodruff and Jack McVay Jr. All either declined to comment or could not be reached.

In January when the Supreme Court announced the rule changes, O'Brien said he hired his brother in 1991 because he knew he could trust him.

“I know when I tell him to do something, he's going to do it. I get along well with him. I think it was a good idea for me to hire him,” O'Brien said. “I do not intend to fire my brother.”

Court Administrator Claire Capristo said although previous applicants were asked if they were related to anyone in the court system, future applicants will be asked specifically if they are a member of a judge's family. A positive answer will preclude them from being hired.

Although state court officials said nothing prompted the revision, it followed criminal charges against ex-judges of the now-defunct Philadelphia Traffic Court and former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

On Wednesday, four of six ousted traffic court judges in Philadelphia were convicted of lying to authorities. Last year Melvin was sentenced to house arrest for her conviction for using her state-paid office to run political campaigns in 2003 and 2009.

Under the new policy, a judge's personal staff — judicial secretary, law clerk and tipstaff — will remain the direct responsibility of the judge for whom they work and will be covered by the state's anti-nepotism code. All others will be hired by a committee that generally includes Capristo and Manning, the court administrator for the division with the vacancy and a human resources employee.

“It is recognized that the anti-nepotism policy may result in the exclusion of some highly qualified applicants, but such employment decisions can give rise to a conflict of interest and a perception that a judge exerted his or her influence over the hiring of a family member,” Capristo said.

Eli Wald, a legal ethics professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, said anti-nepotism policies address and generally put to rest concerns about the quality of employees, the appearance of impropriety and whether there was a competitive hiring process.

“A grandfathering clause is fairly common, so you're not wasting taxpayer money and destabilizing the current system,” he said.

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a statewide nonpartisan court reform group, said the grandfathering of existing family members raises concerns.

“On one hand, their continued employment undermines the public's perception of the judicial system as fair and impartial. On the other, it may be impractical and unreasonable to fire experienced staff who happen to be family members of the judges,” she said.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

 

 

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