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Pennsylvania appellate court staffers told to stop private work

| Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has barred state appellate court staff members from performing private legal work for compensation amid reports of a federal investigation into legal fees paid to the wife of Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery.

The high court's order issued this week extends to all 404 staff employees of the state's appellate courts, a court spokesman said. The order did not mention McCaffery or his wife and chief administrative judicial assistant, Lise Rapaport, who is paid $75,395 by the state.

McCaffery's statements of financial interest, which court officials make public upon request, report that eight law firms have paid referral fees to Rapaport on 19 occasions since 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported.

McCaffery was not required to disclose the amounts of the fees in the financial disclosures, but a court filing last year revealed that one fee paid to Rapaport was $821,000, the Inquirer has reported.

All of the law firms and their lawyers have made campaign donations to McCaffery, and some have argued cases in front of him, the Inquirer has reported.

McCaffery, 63, did not respond to a telephone message at his Philadelphia office on Thursday.

Justices essentially fast-tracked the order, which enacts an amendment to an existing rule. Usually, a court-appointed appellate court committee of lawyers and judges issues a proposed rule for public comment before it is sent to the justices for consideration, a court spokesman said. Previously, such legal work required the approval of a supervising judge.

It was not immediately clear whether the order will definitively bar the practice of referring people to law firms in exchange for a fee. Chief Justice Ronald Castille told the Inquirer on Wednesday that the majority of the seven-member court viewed the acceptance of referral fees as a form of practicing law.

A lawyer for McCaffery and Rapaport has told the Inquirer that the legal fees she received to refer people to law firms did not constitute the practice of law or a conflict of interest for McCaffery.

Castille told the Inquirer for a story published in March that the fees raise the potential for conflicts of interest and the appearance of impropriety. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The Inquirer reported on Sunday that federal investigators have requested copies of McCaffery's statements of financial interest and information about the fees from the law firms involved.

McCaffery, a Democrat and former Philadelphia municipal court judge, won a seat on the Superior Court in 2003 then the Supreme Court in 2007.

Scrutiny of McCaffery follows the February conviction of another state Supreme Court justice, Joan Orie Melvin, on charges that she used her taxpayer-paid judicial staff and resources to help wage her campaigns for the seat.

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