Suspended state Supreme Court justice leaves ethics panel without settlement

Natasha Lindstrom
| Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, 5:15 p.m.

A judicial conduct court Thursday denied Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin's attempt to strike a deal that could have resolved a scandal over lewd emails he exchanged and sidestepped the need for a public trial.

“One thing is clear: They wanted a plea bargain, and the court said no; they're not going to hear a resolution of the case,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law, who has been following the case.

Lawyers on both sides appeared in a Downtown courtroom planning to announce details of a proposed settlement negotiated with the help of a mediator. They left frustrated and confused about the purpose of the hearing in the City-County Building.

“We were brought here to Pittsburgh on 48 hours' notice, with a written deal, and we're not allowed to talk about it. We're not allowed to mention it,” Eakin's attorney, William C. Costopoulos, said shortly after leaving the hearing of the Court of Judicial Discipline.

“What happened today was a total shock.”

Ledewitz said he views the court's snub of the proposed deal as a boon to transparency.

“This is a matter that should not be mediated,” Ledewitz said. “This is a matter that should go to trial to reassure the people of Pennsylvania that justice is being done.”

Eakin, 67, a Republican on the high court since 2002, faces scrutiny over whether he violated the state constitution or canons. The court could censure or clear him for the content of his emails, some of which included nudity and sexual jokes and mocked minorities, women and domestic violence.

During a Dec. 21 hearing, Eakin choked back sobs as he repeatedly apologized for emails he sent on a private Yahoo account to a friend in the attorney general's office and his golfing buddies. He said the emails — most of which he received but did not send — had “nothing to do with performance on the job.”

Eakin was suspended with pay in January pending a March 29 trial in Philadelphia. It remains unclear whether that trial will proceed.

Judge Jack Panella, a state Superior Court judge presiding over the case, opened the hearing Thursday by emphasizing the panel's commitment to transparency and openness in a “serious case” that has broad ramifications.

“This case is of significant importance to the judiciary, the legal profession and most importantly, to the general public,” Panella said.

To the dismay of attorneys on both sides — and a visibly agitated Eakin — Panella limited the hearing to the narrow question of whether they wanted to make use of Rule 502(D) of the state's judicial conduct proceedings, which allows parties to present agreed-upon facts in lieu of trial. Panella said the court can then decide whether to accept or reject the stipulations.

He requested several items of evidence be submitted within one week should the parties take that route.

Costopoulos declined to provide details about the settlement, reached with the assistance of Philadelphia lawyer Dick Sprague, such as whether the outcome would involve Eakin's stepping down or keeping his pension.

“My primary concern is that he be removed from the bench,” said Christian Bagin, a Downtown attorney and chair of Western Pennsylvania Employment Lawyers Association.

Bagin said a forced removal — rather than a resignation that entitles Eakin to keep his pension — would “send a message that this kind of conduct is absolutely not permitted, not acceptable, and that's where you have the forfeiture of benefits.”

In a 52-page complaint, the Judicial Conduct Board said many messages Eakin sent or received “detracted from the dignity of his office.” The board cited emails including video about busloads of “sluts” crashing in California and jokes about domestic violence and golfer Tiger Woods.

“He's (Eakin) accepted responsibility. We sent out the 18 emails. We shouldn't have done it. We apologize. We're never going to do it again,” Costopoulos said. “What's there to try?”

Eakin, a former Cumberland County district attorney, is the second Supreme Court justice to become wrapped up in the far-reaching email scandal centered on the attorney general's office.

Former Justice Seamus McCaffery retired in 2014 after his colleagues suspended him when his lewd emails became public.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Scranton Democrat, turned Eakin's emails over to the Judicial Conduct Board.

Kane branded Eakin's emails “pornographic, racist and misogynistic” when she forwarded them to the conduct board. Her investigators found thousands of raunchy emails shared by staffers, police, judges and others on the attorney general's computer system when reviewing the case of Penn State child molester Jerry Sandusky.

Kane has selectively released emails; critics say she focused on former prosecutors from a Republican administration.

Separately, Kane faces criminal charges, including felony perjury, in Montgomery County related to a leak of grand jury material and lying about her actions. She has said an “old boys' network” manufactured a case against her to keep her from revealing their offensive emails.

Eakin was among those justices who voted unanimously to suspend Kane's law license.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or Staff writer Brad Bumsted contributed to this report.

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