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Conflicts matter: The integrity of the state high court is at stake

| Friday, March 8, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Avoiding even the appearance of what Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille calls “conflicts of interest and impropriety arising from a judge's staff employee practicing law ... and especially in a judicial chamber” must be the bottom line regarding a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice's lawyer wife/chief judicial aide accepting 18 client-referral fees from law firms over the past decade.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports such fees are routine. And, indeed, Justice Seamus P. McCaffery listed the fees of his wife, Lise Rapaport, on his financial-disclosure forms. But that doesn't allay concerns arising from him ruling on 11 cases involving law firms that paid his wife for referrals in other cases.

Mr. Justice McCaffery favored those firms' side in eight of those 11 cases — without disclosing his wife's ties to those firms from the bench. True, no state judicial rule required him to do so. But he should have recognized that his “impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” as the state Code of Judicial Conduct puts it, and recused himself, which the code urges judges in such situations to consider.

Obviously needed is more strict enforcement of a Supreme Court personnel policy that requires the chief justice's OK — which he says Ms. Rapaport didn't seek and he wouldn't have granted — before lawyers in its employ practice law.

But to fully protect their court's integrity — already severely tarnished by the public corruption conviction of suspended Justice Joan Orie Melvin — the state's top jurists must do even more by avoiding such staff entanglements, disclosing them to litigants when germane and recusing themselves whenever even a hint of conflict might exist.

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