CJD's suspension of Phila. Traffic Court judge could spark legal showdown with Pa. Supreme Court

By Jon Campisi | Jun 3, 2013

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court may well be the highest court in the land, but in the

eyes of the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline, the high court overstepped its authority when it suspended without pay a Philadelphia Traffic Court judge caught up in the federal ticket-fixing probe.

In a May 24 opinion written by President Judge Bernard L. McGinley, the Court of Judicial Discipline approved a petition by the state’s Judicial Conduct Board to suspend with pay Mark Bruno, a magisterial district judge from Chester County who also hears cases at Philadelphia Traffic Court, and was indicted by the federal government, along with eight other current and former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges, in connection with a ticket-fixing scandal involving allegations that jurists dismissed traffic citations for family, friends and the politically connected.

Some have already pleaded guilty in federal court.

On Feb. 1, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unilaterally suspended Bruno without pay, a decision that was essentially upheld by a federal jurist, U.S. District Judge Anita Brody, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where Bruno filed a petition challenging his punishment by the state’s high court.

Brody technically didn’t affirm the state Supreme Court’s order suspending Bruno, but rather she determined that the federal court had no jurisdiction in the case, and she declined to get involved further.

What’s interesting about the May 24 decision by the Court of Judicial Discipline is that it essentially overturns the Supreme Court’s decision, which prevented Bruno from receiving his paycheck while on suspension.

In the CJD opinion, McGinley, a Commonwealth Court judge who also serves on the disciplinary court, wrote that it should handle the Bruno matter because the CJD has a fuller record than the one that existed when the Supreme Court issued its Feb. 1 order, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because the state constitution confers such authority to the CJD, not the high court.

The CJD opinion also states that the Supreme Court recently recognized the authority of the disciplinary court in matters such as these following the exit of disgraced former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who is serving out three years of house arrest following her recent public corruption conviction.

Orie Melvin, who was charged with instructing judicial staff to do campaign work – all judges in Pennsylvania are elected – has since resigned from the bench.

In a situation similar to this case, the CJD had suspended Orie Melvin without pay, even though the high court had previously suspended their colleague with pay.

The CJD stated that it arrived at its decision to allow Bruno to continue receiving his salary during his suspension following Bruno’s arguments during an oral hearing held in early April.

The court also took into consideration Bruno’s 15-year tenure in the judiciary, which appears to have been served “in an exemplary fashion attested by his serial re-elections,” the opinion states.

The CJD also said in formulating its decision to allow Bruno to still receive his pay during the suspension, the judges looked to other similar interim suspension cases, only two of which involved suspended jurists who were ordered not to receive their pay while temporarily off the bench.

The opinion says that the conduct Bruno is charged with, while serious, does not appear to rise to the level of the conduct committed by the judges in the earlier cases on record.

One example given was the case of Jules Melograne, a district judge from Allegheny County, who had been charged in the early 1990s with fixing hundreds of cases over a long period of time.

In Bruno’s case, the CJD wrote, while he was caught up in a “grand scheme” involving widespread allegations against other Philadelphia Traffic Court judges, he himself has only been charged in relation to two specific incidents.

“In this jurisprudential setting, then, suspending [Bruno] would be a holding – a declaration – that the public is scandalized to a greater degree by the scant and shaky allegations against Bruno on two isolated occasions than by charges of fixing hundreds of cases over a long period of years made against Melograne, who was suspended with pay,” the CJD opinion states. “We will not make that holding or that declaration for, by any other measure, the totality of the circumstances requires that this Respondent’s interim suspension be with pay.”

In a concurring opinion, CJD Judge Charles A. Clement, Jr., elaborated on the 1993 amendment to the state constitution that the CJD believes grants it the sole authority to handle interim suspension orders; the Supreme Court apparently disagrees with this view.

“I believe that the 1993 amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution make it clear that it is no longer necessary for the Supreme Court to enter interim orders of suspension … and that, therefore, it should not,” Clement wrote.

It’s Clement’s contention that the 1993 amendment to the state constitution that established a “two tier” system for judicial discipline, replacing the earlier Judicial Inquiry and Review Board with both the Judicial Conduct Board and the Court of Judicial Discipline, gave the CJD sole authority over interim suspension matters.

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