Gov. Tom Wolf is calling on Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin to resign after The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the justice was part of a ploy to install a new appointee to the judicial disciplinary tribunal expected to decide his fate in the pornographic email scandal.
“This process is absurd,” Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan told The Inquirer. “Justice Eakin’s behavior is reprehensible and beyond unbecoming of an individual, let alone a Supreme Court justice.
“Justice Eakin should resign,” Sheridan said. “The people of Pennsylvania deserve better.”
According to the Philadelphia paper, Wolf’s call for Eakin to step down came after Chief Justice Thomas Saylor abruptly halted the high court’s bid to nominate Karen Snider, a former secretary of the state Department of Public Welfare, to the Court of Judicial Discipline. Within days, the court is expected to take up the matter of whether Eakin violated judicial rules by sending or receiving several dozen emails that contained offensive content.
On Dec. 6, The Inquirer reported that Saylor and Eakin were backing Snider so she could support Eakin in the disciplinary process. The Inquirer also disclosed that Eakin had traded emails with friends in which he discussed plans to visit strip clubs and made racy comments about his female judicial aides.
In his statement Saturday, Saylor called Snider “a candidate with excellent credentials,” but said several justices were concerned because Eakin had participated in the vote to nominate her to the Court of Judicial Discipline, which will decide his fate in the email scandal.
“I shared those concerns and do not believe Justice Eakin should participate in the decision,” Saylor said.
Because Snider would have been eligible to vote on Eakin’s case, Saylor said, “I made the decision to withdraw Snider’s name and restart the nomination process.”
The high court’s about-face followed an Inquirer report that Saylor and Eakin were backing a plan to install a new member on the disciplinary court in a bid to assist Eakin.
There are two vacancies on the eight-member judicial tribunal. The Supreme Court has the authority to fill one; Wolf has the power to appoint the other.
On Dec. 4, Wolf’s spokesman Sheridan said the governor had not decided whether to nominate anyone soon. But he decried any effort to rig the result.
“Any political maneuvering to undermine a thorough and efficient review of Justice Eakin’s reprehensible conduct is disgusting,” Sheridan told The Inquirer.
The paper’s sources said Snider’s nomination had the backing of Saylor, Eakin and Justice Max Baer. Justices Debra Todd and Correale F. Stevens opposed the nomination, they said.
Snider, of Cumberland County, had confirmed that she had agreed to serve on the panel. Snider, now president of a management consulting firm, said she did not know Eakin and declined to elaborate.
Republicans are in the majority on the five-member Supreme Court. Saylor, Eakin, and Correale Stevens are Republicans. Debra Todd and Max Baer are Democrats.
Eakin is expected to face a hearing before the Court of Judicial Discipline before the end of the year. Its options range from clearing him of any ethics violations to reprimanding him to removing him.
Eakin has served on the court since 2002. He has apologized for the troubling emails captured on state computer servers, saying they did not reflect his true character. He became part of the porn email scandal that surrounds Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
Kane raised the issue after Eakin joined his colleagues on the high court in voting to suspend her law license, citing allegations in the criminal case she faces.
Gov. Wolf has also called for her resignation.
In clearing Eakin last year, the Judicial Conduct Board noted that he made a “self-report” in response to allegations that he been involved in the offensive emails. The board praised him for being “cooperative and helpful.”
According to The Inquirer, Eakin turned over only six troubling emails to board investigators. That represented only a small portion of the 65 or so emails flagged as offensive so far this year.
The Judicial Conduct Board is the investigative and prosecutorial arm of the Court of Judicial Discipline.
In November, Eakin proposed that his case be taken up immediately by the judicial court, eliminating the Judicial Conduct Board’s traditional role of investigating and preparing any charges.
In arguing against a new investigation by the conduct board, Eakin said the board has faced “unfortunate and wholly misguided accusations” about the fairness of its earlier review. This in part was an apparent reference by the justice to news reports that the board’s counsel was a friend of the justice and had worked on his retention campaign.
Eakin said that removing the Judicial Conduct Board from its role would “alleviate any mistrust of the process.”
But The Inquirer sources said Eakin’s suggestion collapsed. The Judicial Conduct Board is expected to remain responsible for bringing any charges, but it may do so within days and without much additional investigation, the paper reported.
The Court of Judicial Discipline, which would then take up the case, currently has six members. Three were appointed by the Supreme Court, and the others were appointed by past Pennsylvania governors.
At full complement, the judicial court has eight members, but it has been two short since September. Under the state constitution, one of those open seats is a nominee of the Supreme Court, and the other is a nominee of Wolf, a Democrat. By law, the panel is to have four Republicans and four Democrats.
The makeup of the court will change dramatically in January. Stevens will leave the court, and three Democrats will join. The court will then consist of five Democrats and two Republicans.