Pa. Justice Baer, gearing up for retention vote, opens up about scandals, other issues affecting state judiciary

By Jon Campisi | Oct 31, 2013

Whether deliberating on appeals cases behind closed doors, or entertaining

oral argument on the bench, members of Pennsylvania’s highest court generally remain professional with one another, despite any personal issues that may exist between the jurists.

That was one message from Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer during a profile piece that aired Tuesday evening on the Pennsylvania Cable Network.

Baer, 65, who is up for a retention vote next month, spoke candidly during his interview with Corinna Vecsey Wilson about touchy issues for the judiciary, such as the ousting and conviction of former Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who left the bench as she was being tried on campaign corruption charges, to the so-called “Kids for Cash” judicial scandal in Luzerne County that sent two former state judges to prison on charges that they were receiving kickbacks from an operator of for-profit juvenile detention facilities for sending youngsters to the centers on minor offenses.

Baer also addressed a controversial state constitutional provision mandating judges retire by age 70, and the current efforts to either up or all together scrap the mandatory retirement age.

But he started out the sit-down talking about his legal career, the current state of the courts, and his soft spot for children.

“What we do often flies under the radar but it’s extraordinarily important to every Pennsylvanian,” Baer said about the high court’s work.

Baer, who was initially elected to the Supreme Court in 2003, and just over a week from now will face his first retention vote that would likely result in a mere four-year term, given that he is fast approaching 70, discussed in the interview the move to alter the commonwealth’s constitution to allow for judges remaining on the bench longer.

Baer said he’s not sure how he feels about the issue if it were only to involve raising the retirement age for appeals judges.

After all, some people don’t get elected to judgeships until they’re already up in years.

“It takes a long time to get good as a lawyer, then it takes a long time to get good as a judge,” he said.

On general principle, Baer says he supports raising the judicial retirement age, but not just so he could benefit from it.

“I’ve been on the bench for 24 years,” he said. “I think I’ve done a pretty good job for the people.”

In general, given societal changes, Baer said he thinks it seems “foolish to retire you at 70.”

Judges in the Keystone State didn’t always have to retire at 70; the mandate wasn’t added to the constitution until the constitutional convention in the late 1960s.

There are also said to be inter-personal issues on the high-court, notably between Chief Justice Ronald Castille and Justice Seamus McCaffery, the two Philadelphians on the bench, another topic Baer touched on in his interview.

Asked a question about reported tension within the high court, Baer admitted that certain members don’t get along with others.

But that stuff never enters the courtroom or the deliberative space, Baer said.

“We are mature adults focused upon a job for the people of Pennsylvania,” he said. “When we get together, it’s business, and we do that, and there are not, generally speaking, harsh feelings within the room.”

He said Castille and McCaffery are also professional and speak to each other “civilly and professionally,” although he jokingly said that that might seem hard to believe given media reports on the subject.

Segueing into the Orie Melvin issue, Baer said the talk of corruption charges against the jurist for using her Superior Court judicial staff to work on her ultimately successful campaign for a seat on the high court also never the courtroom or chambers.

Prior to her resignation from the bench – she initially continued to work until the charges became official – Orie Mevin didn’t engage with her colleagues about the pending criminal case against her.

And that was just fine by everyone, Baer said.

Asked how he kept his focus during this tumultuous time, Baer said simply by keeping focused on the task at hand.

“It was her conduct … that got her in trouble,” Baer said. “When it comes to doing the people’s business, doing the work of the court, it goes on as usual.”

On the topic of controversy within the judiciary, Baer also touched on what came to be known as the “Kids for Cash” judicial scandal, the largest of its type in Pennsylvania, and some say U.S., history.

In the end, two former Luzerne County Common Pleas Court judges were sent to prison – for 28 years and 17 years respectively.

When the interviewer asked if the Supreme Court could have done anything differently at the time, Baer said it’s hard to say, since there was simply no idea that anything was amiss.

When Baer and his colleagues heard about a heavy-handed trial judge giving youths strict sentences, Baer said he thought it was simply a jurist enacting a “zero tolerance” policy.

“When it began, we had no inkling of what was actually occurring,” he said.

Baer said no scandal of that size and scope had ever occurred, to his knowledge, in the country’s history.

“What happened there makes me sick and I think all of my colleagues sick,” Baer said. “I acknowledge the damage was done, and we were in a work-out scenario, but we took many, many steps.”

Since the time the scandal became public in 2008, the high court has instituted more than 50 changes to help ensure nothing like that would ever be repeated in Pennsylvania, Baer noted.

The court system now has a better system of checks and balances, he said, and the judiciary is more “scrupulous” in watching for potentially similar activities across the state.

“I hope that we addressed it appropriately when we found out,” Baer said.

One of the topics Baer spent a good deal of time addressing was family court and juvenile welfare.

Baer, who says issues concerning children, such as abuse and neglect, is one of his utmost priorities, spent a good deal of time talking about ways to continually improve the court system where young people are concerned.

Ironically, while most judges are pushed into family court positions soon after first being elected to the judiciary, very few newly minted judges have a strong working knowledge about issues involving children, he said.

Judicial education in Pennsylvania tends to focus more on other topics, Baer said, such as civil and criminal law and procedural rules. (Trial and appellate court judges must have a law degree before running for judgeship).

Baer has even taken it upon himself to author a child dependency guide designed to help judges and welfare professionals.

Family law is a complicated subject, Baer said, and there should be more educational emphasis for the judge, especially a new jurist, on the “subject matter that they’re going to be using.”

Baer noted that the trial court in his home county, Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, was once known to have the worst juvenile court in the country in terms of abused and neglected children cases.

But these days, Baer said, “it’s a fine court.”

Baer ended his interview by urging voters to retain him for another term.

He said he truly sees himself as a public servant, and is dismayed to see how some individuals today view themselves as anything but, as is evidenced by the way they carry themselves, especially under the watchful eye of the media.

“I work awfully hard at the job,” Baer said, asking voters to keep him in his position so he can continue the people’s work.

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