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In Allegheny County, the lawyer judges the jurist

| Friday, March 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Their differences appear to be irreconcilable, but a divorce hardly is guaranteed.

Attorney Richard Joseph contends temper too often triumphs in Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Donald Machen's courtroom. This week, he took the extremely unusual step of filing a motion requesting the veteran jurist disqualify himself from hearing any case in which Joseph is involved.

The move has nothing to do with Machen's legal acumen, which Joseph adamantly insists he respects. It has everything to do with Joseph's belief that the judge has self-control issues that can make appearing before him an unpredictable and trying experience.

“I'm not trying to come across as bold or arrogant,” said Joseph, 75, of Upper St. Clair, who has nearly a half-century's experience as a lawyer. “But the court belongs to the people. In a courtroom, people should be treated with compassion and respect. In (Machen's) courtroom, you can cut the tension with a knife.”

Machen, 65, of Squirrel Hill has been on the bench since 1996. He didn't return a call.

The acrimony between the two men dates back to September. That's when Joseph unsuccessfully asked Machen to recuse himself from a case involving his client, George Nassif, 52, of Heidelberg, who was charged with DUI and other offenses following a traffic stop.

The recusal request followed a hearing in which Joseph described Machen's behavior as less than cordial.

Machen's “demeanor, tone of voice (and) facial expression were threatening and uncalled for,” the recusal motion stated. Machen “was acting like a tyrant, a bully, a dictatorial despot. He was mean, nasty and mean spirited.”

For obvious reasons, such a harsh assessment never would be made publicly by attorneys who frequently appear before Machen or his brethren jurists. Joseph said his age provides him freedoms that younger attorneys lack.

“You can't ruin my career at 75,” he said. “If I haven't ruined it myself by now, no one else is going to be able to do it.”

Is the semi-retired Joseph merely shopping for a new judge to potentially better the chances of his client's acquittal? Or is Machen someone whom getting along with can be genuinely difficult?

The evidence suggests the latter.

Machen became the stuff of courthouse legend in 1998, when he got so upset over a public defender's tardiness that he slammed his courtroom door forcefully. Its glass window broke.

The results of last year's Allegheny County Bar Association annual anonymous attorney survey suggests Machen hasn't mellowed in the interim. Nearly 200 lawyers gave the judge high marks for his legal ability, diligence and impartiality, but he received the lowest judicial temperament rating of any county judge.

Those low marks seemingly signal that many attorneys privately believe what Joseph has entered into the record.

They consider Machen a skillful Jekyll in matters of law. But when it comes to interpersonal skills, they think he's all too often a haughty Hyde.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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