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Most county judges rank 'acceptable' or better

Jason Cato
| Wednesday, June 25, 2008, 12:00 p.m.

State and federal judges in Allegheny County largely received passing marks from lawyers who appear before them, according to the county bar association's Judiciary Survey, a report card released every four years.

Lawyers graded 43 of the county's 46 Common Pleas judges "acceptable" or better in four categories: impartiality, legal ability, diligence and temperament. Lawyers marked 29 judges' job performances as "good" to "excellent."

Federal judges in district, magistrate and bankruptcy courts also scored well, with 18 of the 25 rated good to excellent in three or more categories.

The scores are not meant to compare judges, but to give lawyers a chance to evaluate those who have presided over their cases. A total of 797 lawyers with an average of 23 years in practice submitted surveys.

"It's not a beauty contest," said Ken Gormley, president of the Allegheny County Bar Association and a Duquesne University law professor. "(But) overall, it shows we have excellent, highly qualified judges in Allegheny County."

Gormley declined to comment on specific judges' marks.

"Judges, like all people, have strengths and weakness is particular areas," he said.

Common Pleas Judge Paul Lutty Jr. and U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab each earned poor marks in two categories. Lutty was rated 2.95 out of a possible high score of 5 in legal ability and 2.99 in diligence, while Schwab was rated 2.82 in impartiality and 2.21 in temperament.

Neither could be reached for comment.

Attorney Arthur Stroyd, a former colleague of Schwab's before he received a life-time appointment to the federal bench in 2003, said the public corruption trial of Dr. Cyril H. Wecht likely impacted Schwab's ratings. The first trial of the former county coroner ended in April with a hung jury. Wecht's lawyers have criticized Schwab in court documents and news interviews.

"Dr. Wecht's legal team made no secret in their displeasure in being in front of him or of his rulings, and they made no secret they wanted him off the case," said Stroyd, who described Schwab as being tough and demanding. "I think the Wecht trial had taken its toll on him in terms of impartiality and temperament, because those were the swords being thrust at him by Dr. Wecht's counsel."

Defense attorney Jerry McDevitt, who represents Wecht, declined to comment.

Common Pleas Judge Thomas Flaherty received a 2.81 rating in legal ability -- the lowest of any Common Pleas judge. The former city controller was elected to the bench in 2005 with no legal background.

"I think it's good information. It gives an indication as to how one is doing," Flaherty said. "I'm doing the best I can, and I'm sure the longer I'm on the bench the more I'll improve in that category."

Common Pleas Judge Donald Machen, Senior U.S. District Judge Alan N. Bloch and federal bankruptcy Judge Bernard Markovitz received poor marks in temperament. None could be reached for comment.

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