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Pennsylvania judges court sunny locales

| Sunday, March 27, 2011

HARRISBURG — State judges spent thousands in public money to attend law conferences in Honolulu, the Virgin Islands, Cancun, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas over the past five years, court system records show.

The trips represent just a portion of the state-paid conferences that justices of the Supreme Court and judges of Superior and Commonwealth courts attended in cities from Las Vegas to Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

The most popular conference, based on records the Tribune-Review examined, was the January 2008 trip to the Pennsylvania Bar Association conference at Las Croabas, Puerto Rico. Ten judges charged the state $16,226 collectively for all or part of their expenses to attend the event at El Conquistador Golf Resort & Casino.

Superior Court Senior Judge Robert Colville, the former Allegheny County district attorney, spent about $2,600 in state money on that trip but said he paid his own way to PBA conferences the past two years, including a February 2010 PBA event in Key West, Fla.

"Whether it's appropriate or not, I'm not going to comment," said Colville, of Pittsburgh's North Side. "But as a judge, I believe I have a professional responsibility to participate in these conferences. The obvious thing is, you're going to the Caribbean or Key West, and you're not going to Minneapolis or Cleveland in January. But if it were in Minneapolis, I'd still go."

In October, with the state facing a $4 billion deficit, Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille told justices and judges not to attend the bar association's winter conference last month in Key West "on the state's dime," said James Koval, a court spokesman.

"The lack of adequate funding for the judicial branch caused the court to implement measures to address the funding gap: pay freezes, hiring freezes, medical benefits co-pays, only necessary out-of-state travel," Castille said. "We are still underfunded next year under the governor's budget proposal by about $47 million."

The PBA mid-year meetings accounted for most resort-related travel. A 2006 Honolulu trip was an American Bar Association conference.

The total cost of all judges' overall travel was not available, Koval said. It is not a line item in the courts' budgets, he said.

Castille, of Philadelphia, and Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd of Cranberry will testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday in a hearing on court finances.

The spending on trips to conferences at resort locations "makes me very suspicious of their constant complaint that they don't have enough money to run the courts," said Tim Potts of Carlisle, a court critic who is co-founder of Democracy Rising PA, a watchdog group.

With state resources stretched thin, judges increasingly are seeking reimbursement from the bar association to cover expenses for meetings at resorts, records show.

"It is appropriate for the PBA to offset the expenses of judges to attend these conferences," Castille said. "The judges do not pick the sites; the PBA picks the sites. These are occasions to interact with bar association leaders and members of the bar who attend, and to discuss legal issues of statewide importance to the legal system and to the judicial system."

Each year, the bar association invites all members of the Supreme Court and president judges of Superior and Commonwealth courts to the winter meeting and offers to provide each with a plane ticket and standard hotel room, said Marcy Mallory, a PBA spokeswoman. The bar association is funded by lawyers, not tax dollars.

"It's a tough issue," said Supreme Court Justice Max Baer of Mt. Lebanon. "They go to lovely places and stay at expensive hotels."

Baer listed $150 in state expenses for Las Croabas and noted a gift of "unknown" value from PBA for reimbursement of his conference expenses on his Statement of Financial Interest filed with the court.

The PBA mid-year meetings are "couple's events," Baer said. In an arrangement with PBA made by the late Chief Justice Ralph Cappy of Green Tree, judges would use the one PBA-provided airline ticket for a spouse and charge the state for his or her own ticket, Baer said. He said he has done that and accepted the room, but paid virtually all ground expenses himself.

For a February 2009 PBA conference in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, Todd listed no state expenses. But on her 2010 Statement of Financial Interest filed with the court under "honorarium," Todd listed reimbursement by PBA for attendance at the mid-year meeting with her husband. She did not list an amount.

Her office said Todd paid additional expenses for her husband. Through her assistant Rhonda Campbell, Todd said each justice can decide whether to charge the PBA or state.

PBA President Gretchen Mundorff of Connellsville said the winter conferences at "warm locations" draw lawyers, who frequently take mandatory "continuing legal education" courses there. With judges often heading the seminars, "You'd be hard-pressed to find that type of faculty at any CLE location," Mundorff said.

"Nobody should be paying for this, except the taxpayer, and they can't afford it right now," Potts said. Many of the lawyers who attend the conferences contribute to judges' campaign funds, Potts claimed.

"I don't engage in politics there," Baer said. The PBA events offer an opportunity for frank exchanges with lawyers, particularly older, experienced attorneys, he said, "because the young lawyers can't afford it."

John Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, said he doesn't see any ethical issue for judges being reimbursed by the lawyers' group for speaking or participating at educational conferences.

"Sometimes these things look bad when they really aren't," he said, noting some limits. "I certainly agree there's always a line where it gets excessive, if the meeting is in Galapagos, and (the judge's) family is coming and he or she is speaking for an hour."

The state charges for the Puerto Rico conference, in addition to Colville's, included: Superior Court Judge John Bender, $2,507; Superior Court Judge Susan Peikes Gantman, $2,336; Superior Court Judge Richard Klein, $2,175; former Superior Court Judge Maureen Lally Green, $2,494; and Superior Court Judge Jack Panella, $2,695.

Others submitted partial expenses of varying amounts, records show. For example, Castille submitted his flight expense of $478 to the state. He listed a $1,198 gift from the bar association for room and registration at the mid-year event.

Castille, who also attends chief justices' conferences, noted that group's next two conferences are scheduled for the "exotic locations" of Atlanta and St. Louis.

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