Phila. Common Pleas Court judge ordered suspended without pay

By Jon Campisi | Jul 11, 2013

A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge who has been facing disciplinary action for

failing to divulge certain information during his vetting for judgeship is no longer receiving a paycheck.

In an order issued late last month, the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline ruled that suspended Judge Thomas Nocella would serve out the remainder of his suspension without pay.

Nocella, a Democrat elected to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in November 2011, was temporarily suspended by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court late last year after the Judicial Conduct Board lodged charges against Nocella alleging the judge failed to include information about prior civil court cases in which he was a defendant to the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention.

The panel reviews candidacies for those vying for judicial posts; all judges in Pennsylvania are chosen by voters through partisan elections.

Last October, the Judicial Conduct Board filed a complaint against Nocella accusing the judge of failing to make the commission aware of litigation he had been involved with around the time he was running for office, both during the 2009 Democratic Primary, and during the November 2011 general election.

Nocella, who previously served as a Philadelphia Municipal Court judge, lost the primary bid for Common Pleas Court in 2009 but was elected to the higher bench during the 2011 general election.

He was accused of violating both the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct for allegedly withholding the information from the city bar association’s commission, which conducts an internal review process into those running for judgeship.

Nocella had been receiving a paycheck since his suspension late last year, but the Court of Judicial Discipline’s order issued in late June means Nocella will no longer receive his pay while his suspension plays out.

In a memorandum accompanying the order, the CJD judges wrote that they agree with the Judicial Conduct Board’s assertion that Nocella’s conduct violated both the state constitution and the Judicial Conduct Code.

First, the disciplinary panel wrote that Nocella clearly violated the judicial canon relating to judicial candidates misrepresenting their identity, qualifications, present position or other facts.

In this case, the CJD wrote, Nocella “lied repeatedly about his qualifications and other facts on the numerous questionnaires he submitted to the Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention.”

The CJD singled out the questionnaires Nocella filled out during the judicial vetting process that asked him to list any cases in which he was a defendant or respondent.

During the process in 2009, the CJD’s memorandum states, Nocella listed six such cases; in reality, there were more than 30, the most notable of which, the disciplinary panel stated, was a case initiated against Nocella by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics involving a contempt of court petition against Nocella.

The CJD, however, found that Nocella didn’t violate a second judicial canon that requires judges to “respect and comply with the law and should conduct themselves at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

The reason – Nocella’s actions “did not implicate the decision-making process.”

But the disciplinary court did find that Nocella violated certain sections of the state constitution because his actions were determined to bring the judicial office into disrepute.

“We believe it to be beyond dispute that a judge – or one who would be a judge – who is willing to lie – and in official documents – and repeatedly … is not one who can be expected to encourage, indeed to insist that truth be spoken in his courtroom,” the CJD’s memorandum states.

It was here that the disciplinary court singled out Nocella’s conduct as counsel for a Political Action Committee called the Appreciation Fund, during which the fund, over a period of almost three years, failed to file a campaign finance report as required by law.

This is what led to the 2009 civil case of Philadelphia Board of Ethics v. The Appreciation Fund, which is when Nocella was held in contempt of court for disobeying two court orders.

That case was merely one of many highlighted in the disciplinary court’s memorandum detailing Nocella’s pattern of untruthfulness.

In his defense, records show, Nocella had attempted to argue that the Judicial Conduct Board’s complaint against him should be dismissed because the Court of Judicial Discipline lacks jurisdiction.

His basis for the argument was that much of the offending conduct outlined in the complaint occurred when he was an attorney.

The CJD, however, shot down that argument, saying that if some of the offending conduct took place while Nocella was a lawyer, than some of the conduct also occurred while he was a jurist, or a candidate for judgeship.

“ … We are at a loss to understand where Respondent got the idea that this Court had no jurisdiction over a judge’s conduct while he was a lawyer,” the memorandum states. “One need look no further than the Constitution to learn how mistaken that idea is.”

In the end, the CJD suspended Nocella without pay until further notice.

A hearing to address sanctions was scheduled for July 23 in Harrisburg.

The memorandum was written by Judge Robert J. Colville, a western Pennsylvania jurist who sits on the Court of Judicial Discipline.

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