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Pennsylvania judges told to step away from cases involving campaign donors

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New rules advise Pennsylvania judges who hear cases involving campaign donors to consider whether a contribution “would raise reasonable concern” about impartiality and decide whether to step aside.

Making guidelines to help judges avoid ethical missteps when campaign contributors appear in their courtrooms was new territory for Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille, who joined the high court in 1993. During the 40 years since the last Code of Judicial Conduct rewrite, election spending skyrocketed and fundraising methods multiplied.

“We know the election process, we know the issues, and it's just trying to address them fairly,” Castille said. “It's complicated, and difficult.”

The rules addressing ethical behavior among the state's 450 trial judges and 38 appellate judges took effect on July 1. Judges should recuse themselves if they learn a party in a case makes a donation “in an amount that would raise a reasonable concern” about fairness or impartiality.

“We know that's a place where you can step on a land mine if you're not very careful,” Castille said.

Pennsylvania, one of 39 states with elected judges, long has struggled with the issue of lawyers donating to judges, said Abraham Reich, co-chair of the recommendation task force of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

“You don't get elected in Pennsylvania without the support of a significant body of lawyers; that's a fact of life,” Reich said.

Other updates to the code include bans on serving on corporate boards and hiring relatives. Officials did not link the rewrite to specific cases in Pennsylvania, but they released the draft rules two weeks after an Allegheny County judge sentenced former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin to house arrest because she was convicted of using state-paid staff to run her judicial campaigns in 2003 and 2009.

Justice Seamus McCaffery this year sued The Philadelphia Inquirer over reports on multiple referral fees law firms paid to his wife and chief legal aide, Lisa Rapaport, including one payment of $821,000. Lawyers can receive referral fees as a cut of settlements after referring clients. The paper said McCaffery heard 11 cases in which firms tied to the fees were participants.

Calls to McCaffery and Rapaport's attorney, Dion Rassias, were not returned.

The American Judicature Society said 13 other states have rules about when judges should recuse themselves because of political donations.

Keeping disqualification limits vague accommodates the varied cost of campaigns statewide, Castille said. A race in Philadelphia might cost $100,000. It could be half that in rural areas. Some states don't permit a judge to hear a case if a party has donated more than a certain amount. In New York, the threshold is $2,500 in an election cycle.

Judges in Pennsylvania are not allowed to solicit donations directly. They must use campaign committees.

“The (new) rule begins when the judge knows or learns that a party or party's lawyers have contributed,” Allegheny County President Judge Jeffrey Manning said. “In my experience, the judges on this court have generally isolated themselves from that kind of knowledge.”

Castille said the rules can be amended if necessary. “It's still difficult for us to come up with the perfect solution,” he said.

Before the rules took effect, the court clarified that the campaign contribution rule does not require judges to step aside if a party in their case donated to a political action committee that made a contribution.

Russ Carparelli, executive director of the American Judicature Society, said U.S. Supreme Court cases on campaign contributions — such as the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission case in 2010 — made judicial circles focus on PACs.

“We think that each state is going to have to figure it out for themselves,” he said.

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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