Fees paid to Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice's wife questioned
During the past decade, the wife of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery — his chief judicial aide — has received 18 payments as referral fees for connecting law firms with clients.
In the most recent payment, McCaffery's wife, lawyer Lise Rapaport, received $821,000 — her fee from a settlement in a multimillion-dollar medical malpractice case.
Court records and McCaffery's state-mandated public financial disclosure forms list the 18 instances in which his wife received a referral fee.
A lawyer for the couple, and attorneys with the firms, say the fees were routine and proper.
But the high court's chief justice, Ronald D. Castille, questioned Rapaport's making referrals, as did some legal experts.
Castille said they raised the potential for “conflicts of interest and the appearance of impropriety arising from a judge's staff employee practicing law while receiving fair compensation while employed in a judicial chamber, and especially in a judicial chamber.”
Castille and McCaffery have been bitterly at odds in recent months, personally and professionally.
As the fees have come in, McCaffery has ruled on 11 Supreme Court cases in which some of the firms tied to the fees were participants. Lawyers in the cases say the justice never disclosed the fees.
In eight of those 11 appeals, McCaffery voted in favor of the legal position advanced by the firms that had received referrals from Rapaport in other cases.
Referral fees are normal practice in Pennsylvania. An attorney who refers a client to a firm shares in any eventual settlement or award. It is typically one-third of the primary law firm's contingency fee, which is one-third. There is no requirement in Pennsylvania that the referring lawyer perform any work on the case.
State judicial rules do not specifically require state Supreme Court justices to disclose from the bench that a family member has received such referral payments.
There is no indication that any of the cases in which McCaffery participated were ones in which his wife had received a referral fee.
His participation apparently occurred in appeals in other cases involving various lawyers from the firms, either as litigants or in friend-of-the court briefs.
The state Code of Judicial Conduct says judges should, in general, consider recusing themselves when their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
However, the code says the fact that a spouse is affiliated with the firm in a case before the court “does not of itself” disqualify the judge.