Federal judge sides with Pa. justices in suspension of indicted Phila. Traffic Court judge

By Jon Campisi | May 15, 2013

One of the judges snared in a federal investigation into allegations of ticket-fixing at the

beleaguered Philadelphia Traffic Court has lost his bid to have his suspension from the bench overturned.

U.S. District Judge Anita Brody, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, denied Mark A. Bruno’s petition that the federal court enjoin the Pennsylvania Supreme Court from suspending Bruno without pay and benefits pending the resolution of his criminal trial, which is tied to an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia that Bruno and a host of other Traffic Court judges dismissed motor vehicle citations for family, friends and the politically connected.

Bruno was suspended by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Feb. 1. He subsequently filed a federal suit seeking a preliminary injunction barring the state’s high court from enforcing the suspension.

The Supreme Court justices, six of whom were named as individual defendants, opposed Bruno’s motion.

(Former Justice Joan Orie Melvin did not participate in Bruno’s suspension since she herself was suspended from the high court at the time due to public corruption charges. She was recently found guilty at trial and ordered to undergo three years’ house arrest followed by probation).

Bruno, who is actually a magisterial district judge in West Chester, Pa., but occasionally hears cases at Philadelphia Traffic Court, had been indicted by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in late January and charged with conspiracy and mail and wire fraud.

In opposing Bruno’s motion for a preliminary injunction, the state Supreme Court argued that the federal court lacks subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which, Brody’s May 13 memorandum states, involves cases “brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.”

In denying Bruno’s motion, Brody wrote that the high court’s suspension order is not “final and does not end the state proceedings because it anticipates further action of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and invites Bruno to appeal his suspension by seeking to vacate or modify the Order.”

“The Suspension Order does not affirm the judgment of any lower court and it clearly leaves more to be resolved,” Brody wrote. “Additionally, both parties may seek further action.”

Brody also noted that the language of the order indicates that the state’s high court intends to take further action, and that the state court proceedings have not yet resolved Bruno’s constitutional challenge to his suspension, “but it is reasonable to presume that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will entertain this challenge if Bruno seeks to vacate or modify the Suspension Order.”

Brody also determined that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine is inapplicable in this case because under the doctrine, a federal court doesn’t have authority to review final judgments of a state in “judicial proceedings.”

District Courts can only get involved if a judicial proceeding, rather than an administrative act, has occurred.

“The Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not apply because the [suspension] Order is not adjudicative nor did it end the state proceedings,” Brody wrote.

The federal jurist did, however, address Bruno’s claim that the defendants violated his federal due process rights with the suspension.

Bruno had argued that the Supreme Court violated his due process rights when it failed to provide him with a pre-or-post-suspension hearing, but the defendants claimed that a pre-suspension hearing is not constitutionally required.

In ruling in favor of the defendants, Brody wrote that Bruno has only been temporarily suspended without pay, and that Bruno has been offered the opportunity for additional post-suspension procedural process in the suspension order.

The state justices had argued that Bruno needed to be suspended because, as a member of the state’s judiciary, he holds a “high visibility position of great public trust.”

Brody wrote the fact that Bruno has been indicted by a federal grand jury provides even more reason than formal charges for a state to believe that an employee has committed a felony.

“Certainly, the criminal indictment provides reasonable grounds to support the PA Supreme Court Defendants’ decision to suspend Bruno without pay,” Brody wrote.

Brody further wrote that there is no evidence that Bruno will be unable to receive an adequate post-suspension hearing before the state Supreme Court.

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