Phila. judge removed from the bench, barred from holding future office

By Jon Campisi | Aug 8, 2013

Suspended Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas M. Nocella has been

Suspended Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas M. Nocella has been

ordered permanently removed from the First Judicial District bench by the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline.

The disciplinary body also ruled that Nocella would never again be allowed to hold judicial office in Pennsylvania.

In a one-paragraph per curiam order filed on Aug. 5, about two weeks after a hearing on the issue of sanctions took place concerning Nocella’s future as a member of the state’s judiciary, the Court of Judicial Discipline determined that removing the judge was the appropriate course of action.

Going even further, the CJD barred Nocella from ever again holding judicial office in the commonwealth.

Nocella, a Democrat elected to the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court in November 2011, has been on a non-paid suspension since earlier this summer.

Late last year, he was temporarily suspended with pay by the state Supreme Court after the Judicial Conduct Board charged the jurist with violating the state constitution and bringing the judicial office into disrepute.

The JCB had accused Nocella of withholding certain information from the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention during the panel’s vetting process of judicial candidates.

The JCB had claimed that Nocella failed to make the commission aware of litigation he had been involved with during the time he was running for Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge, both during the 2009 Democratic Primary and during the November 2011 general election.

Nocella, who had previously been a judge at Philadelphia Municipal Court, lost his 2009 primary bid but won a Common Pleas Court seat in the 2011 general election.

In a July filing, the Court of Judicial Discipline stated that they agreed with the JCB’s allegation that Nocella’s conduct violated the commonwealth’s constitution and the state’s Judicial Conduct Code.

“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 judges wrote in their late June memorandum.

The CJD also referenced Nocella’s conduct as counsel for a Political Action Committee called the Appreciation Fund as another reason the judge needed to be removed from office.

Nocella, the JCB had charged, became involved in a lawsuit, Philadelphia Board of Ethics v. The Appreciation Fund, during which he represented the PAC for failing to file a campaign finance report as required by law.

Nocella ended up being held in contempt of court for disobeying two court orders during that case, the JCB stated.

During the disciplinary proceedings, Nocella’s attorneys had attempted to argue that the complaint against their client should have been dismissed because Nocella was an attorney, not a jurist, during the time of the conduct outlined in the complaint against him.

The CJD, however, shot down that argument, writing in its June memorandum that it was “at a loss to understand where [Nocella] got the idea that this Court had no jurisdiction over a judge’s conduct while he was a lawyer. One need look no further than the Constitution to learn how mistaken that idea is.”

Both the June memorandum and this week’s per curiam order were signed by Judge Robert J. Colville, a western Pennsylvania judge who sits on the CJD.

The decision to both toss Nocella from the bench and prohibit him from holding future judicial posts was met with praise by one court reform activist.

Lynn A. Marks, who heads up the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, told the Pennsylvania Record in an emailed statement that the sanction sends a crucial message to the state judiciary and everyday citizens that the judicial discipline system “ensures that our judges are held to the highest standards.

“It also warns would-be judges that not only should they never lie about their qualifications during a campaign, but that there are serious consequences, including removal, for lying one’s way to the bench,” Marks said.

Samuel C. Stretton, a lawyer representing Nocella, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he would likely appeal the CJD’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“I may not get far, but I’m going to try,” Stretton, who called the CJD’s ruling the “death penalty,” was quoted as saying in the newspaper.

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