Friday, September 28, 2007
But guess what?
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Washington—Early in the election cycle, announced candidate for the 15th Congressional District of Pennsylvania Siobhan Bennett has already shown her flaws. First, she filed an outrageously erroneous personal disclosure form, and then she became the center of attention of a scandal involving the non-profit for which she is currently employed. Now, her former employer, Americans Coming Together (ACT), has been hit with a massive fine by the Federal Election Commission for their activities during the 2003-2004 election cycle.
Siobhan Bennett has some real questions to answer about her involvement with ACT and her series of lapses in judgment.
Here are the facts surrounding Siobhan Bennett’s involvement with ACT:
FACT: “The Federal Election Commission announced Wednesday that it had imposed a $775,000 fine on America Coming Together (ACT), a Democratic-allied 527 group that played a major role in the 2004 presidential election.”
FACT: ACT was fined for blatantly ignoring Federal Election Commission contribution guidelines. Bankrolled by a billionaire while pretending to be for the average Joe, America Coming Together acted like it was above the law.
“ACT, which received a significant amount of its funding from billionaire George Soros, paid for much of the Democrats’ voter registration and voter mobilization activities in battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida during the 2004 race…” (The Hill 8/29/2007)FACT: The FEC found that ACT illegally spent over $100 million to influence the 2004 election. (The Hill 8/29/2007)
FACT: Siobhan Bennett served as the Lehigh Valley Regional Field Director for the group America Coming Together during the 2004 Election Cycle. (Morning Call Newspaper 7/11/2004)
FACT: ACT, as a political nonprofit, is not allowed to actively endorse a candidate. But its state communications director, Rebecca Kirszner calls it a “left-leaning grassroots organization.” Its Web site says one of the national group's goals is to defeat Bush “and his Republican allies” in the fall. (Morning Call Newspaper 7/11/2004)
FACT: The local press also had no misconceptions about ACT’s behavior as directed by Siobhan Bennett
.“Since then she [Siobhan Bennett] . . . served last year as the field director of the Lehigh Valley chapter of America Coming Together, a political organization that supports Democrats.” (Morning Call 1/28/2005)Certainly the ACT office that Bennett managed sounds like it was overtly political, in violation of its non-profit status.
Siobhan has some questions to answer regarding her employment and work with this “non-profit” organization:
QUESTION: Does Siobhan Bennett feel any guilt having worked for such an obviously illegal and improper entity – America Coming Together?
QUESTION: Did Bennett coordinate improperly in any way with the Kerry campaign, the Joe Driscoll for Congress campaign or any local Democrat committee in contravention of her group’s supposed non-profit status?
QUESTION: On her website, Siobhan writes:
“We have all been disappointed and appalled by continuing reports of corruption in Congress and the Administration. The most insidious effect of widespread corruption is the idea that ‘everybody in Washington does it.’”
“In Congress, I promise to conduct the people’s business fairly, openly and for all my constituents, and not for the benefit of special interests.”
Why would the voters of the 15th District ever believe any statement Siobhan Bennett makes regarding ethics, given her employment with ACT and her series of lapses in judgment?
If county councilpersons get the feeling they're under a microscope, it's because they are. This media coverage actually promotes accountable and transparent government.
But how about Lehigh County? Did you know there was a commissioners' meeting last night? Five different pieces of legislation and two appointments were on the agenda. But you won't be reading about it in any of the papers. The press sent no one to cover a regularly scheduled meeting of the Lehigh Valley's largest local government.
It is precisely this kind of environment, where no one is watching, that makes bad government possible. But I'll bet Lehigh County officials love it.
Keystone Politics tells us she's now making the rounds in the beltway, trying desperately to grab some dough. Crooks and Liars, a beltway blog, tried to puff her candidacy. But even there, a buzz saw of complaints from local Dems followed a post telling us all about Sammy's favorite song.
Don't worry, Sammy hasn't forgotten about the little people. BethlehemDem tells us she's having a two hour fundraiser on Sunday at Jeanette Eichenwald's house. For just $1,000, you can be a host! Her special guest? Catherine Baker Knoll! Knoll is planning on crashing a nearby funeral anyway. Apparently, she has new business cards. Maybe she'll take Sammy with her.
Before Bennett announced her campaign, Congressman Charlie Dent was widely viewed as vulnerable. But now, thanks to a six month comedy of errors, CQ rates Charlie's seat as "Republican favored."
That's how councilperson Ann McHale exploded when told that the Stoffa administration was seeking council's input on whether to reject some high bids for county services. Stoffa thought we could do better. McHale was one of those who didn't want to be bothered.
Let me tell you the story.
When Northampton County first bid its information technology contract, three computer companies responded. Technical defects led to two rejections, leaving the county with only one bid. Affiliated Computer Services, the county's current provider, was actually the high bidder, at a little over $10 million. It was also the low bidder because it was the only company that could be legally considered.
Stoffa was unable legally to negotiate directly with ACS for a lower bid. So the county had two choices - award a new IT contract to ACS for $10 million, or reject all bids and start over. Our Administrative Code allows the county to reject bids when "it is in the best interest of the County." All three bidders had agreed to submit new bids, and the general feeling was that new bids would come in a little lower.
Amazingly, when county council was asked to reject, it refused. Personally, I think that small-minded group tried to stick it to the county's taxpayers for two reasons. First, one of the rejected bidders is a major contributor to Republicans, and council saw an opportunity to pull a "pay to play" in reverse. Second, they wanted to embarrass County Exec John Stoffa, who refuses to play their political games. Whatever their reasoning, it was certainly bad government.
This unbridled hubris continued. Council brazenly refused to accept their own lawyer's advice, when he told them they lack supervisory authority over the bidding process. It might "set a precedent." Ann McHale, Charles Dertinger, Lamont McClure, Diane Neiper and Tony Branco just couldn't bring themselves to admit they had made a mistake. The matter was instead referred to Lamont McClure's law and order committee, where he claims to have had a "lot of success in dealing with tough problems." The matter has languished there since July 12 with no discussion.
Stoffa ended up rejecting the bids on his own and sought new proposals. "They [council] can do what they want to do. I answer to the taxpayers, ultimately."
Thanks to Sarah Cassi at The Express Times, we know the new bids are in. The county wants to award its IT contract to ACS, but this time the bid is $8.2 million. That will save the county, and its taxpayers, $1.8 million over the bid that council tried to shove down our throats.
Looks like nice guys do finish first after all.
And for once, so does the taxpayer.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
"How about Baghdad?"
Allentonians are a divided group. On one side, there's Team Hilliard, which has challenged nearly every initiative, often in court. On the other side are those who believe Pawlowski can do no wrong. I suspect both sides are right and wrong. It's been a great debate.
But there's a third group that bothers the hell out of me. These are the elitists who insist we look at their city through rose colored glasses. The most extreme of these actually suggested we rename the Lehigh Valley the "Valley of Allentown." At the same time, those who feed the homeless are incredibly snarked as "dogooders" who "often do harm to society (especially our cities)." After being nauseated by those incredibly pompous remarks, Bill's column was a breath of fresh air.
But is Bill being too negative about the Queen City? Is Bethlehem or Easton just as bad as Allentown? Let's look at the cold hard facts.
If you compare Allentown to Bethlehem and Easton, the Lehigh Valley's two other cities, Allentown has the highest crime rate. That's just the way it is. Bethlehem's crime rate is below the national average in nearly every category, unlike Allentown.
In Easton, it's much closer, but Allentown still gets the edge.
So in the Valley of Allentown, the Queen City is our smelly armpit, like it or not. But that doesn't make Allentown a cesspool. Nearby Reading, in Berks County, actually makes Allentown look like paradise.
Allentown is actually amazingly similar to slightly larger Hartford, Connecticut, in crime statistics. Both cities are about the same distance from New York City.
Allentown is definitely the most crime-ridden city in the Lehigh Valley. But if you compare it with other similar cities, its crime problem is nothing unusual.
Yesterday, Stevens joined forced with other foes of illegal immigration, including our very own John Morganelli. They want new state laws or something. Needless to say, lots of folks are outraged that a judge would dare state his views.
Capitol Ideas' John Micek tells us Stevens may have gone too far. "Once legal ethicists and others picked their jaws up off the floor, they said Stevens, 60, probably went sailing over the line with his public comments."
But did he?
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a judicial candidate has a first amendment right to speak out on issues that might come before the court. Pennsylvania thereafter relaxed judicial canons, allowing candidates to “announce” views on disputed legal or political issues. It still prohibits statements that “commit or appear to commit the candidate with respect to cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court.”
Even in this watered down version, this canon has been enjoined by a federal district court. It is unenforceable.
That's why Stevens can speak, and we are the beneficiaries. Tim Potts at Democracy Rising has stated this injunction "means [judges] will be able to respond to a lot more issues than in the past. As long as we're going to have elections, they ought to be meaningful. Public confidence in the courts is [already] abysmally low."
Philadelphia lawyer Robert Nix, who just happens to chair the state Republican Hispanic Coalition, is among those outraged, and he intends to file a complaint with the Judicial Conduct Board.
Good luck with that one, Bob.
Now don't get me wrong, I get queasy when I hear undocumented workers scapegoated as the cause of all our problems. I disagree completely with both Stevens and Morganelli. But I think it's important that voters know who they're voting for, and I give Stevens credit for opening up.
Update: Stevens Defends Capitol Appearance. - In today's Hazelton Standard Speaker, Judge Stevens defends his appearance at a capitol press conference on Monday. Here's his explanation.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Just as the arrival of robins tell us it's spring, the first campaign sign signals the end of summer. A dark, dreary winter is just a few weeks away. I spotted my first sign yesterday, along Route 248 near its intersection with Route 33. It was still there a day later.
Everybody loves Fox! Especially Dems.
At a parade in early September, Cherkin was on a float with Rendell, who was running for Gov the first time. The Petri camp was doomed.
But then, inexplicably, the Cherkin folks began passing out pickles on a stick. They were wearing signs and chanting “Gherkins for Cherkin”. Petri won 55-45.
Pickles on a stick have not been used in politics since that fateful day.
How about petri dishes?
PaCleanSweep has taken the easy road. At first, it recommended that voters reject every judge up for retention. It has recently given the Superior Court's Orie Melvin a reprieve from an automatic NO vote because she "has done everything in her power to personally reject the judicial swindle."
Monday, September 24, 2007
If you go to her webpage now, that list of endorsements has simply vanished.
Fortunately, I still have a link in case she lost hers.
Do you notice any other unusual snacks offered at local sporting events?
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Tomorrow, four Dieruff High School students have something different in mind. Here's what they say.
Friday, September 21, 2007
She's the former clerk who embezzled $120,000 from county coffers. She's paid back every cent, surrendered her county pension and was sentenced to a minimum of nine months in an overcrowded jail. After serving a third of that sentence, she'd like to spend the remainder under house arrest. She is a single mother with a young son, and he suffers for her sins. Now the District Attorney's office opposes this request. At a hearing last week, an assistant DA exclaimed, "House arrest is a joke. What she did was not a joke."
Update: In a one sentence order, Judge Emil Giordano has denied Fogel's request for house arrest. He did so without interference from the Lamont McClure for County Council campaign.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Too many illegitimate press members are running around. At last night's Northampton County council meeting, newshawks Sarah Cassi of The Express Times and Joe Nixon of The Morning Call, were ready, pens in hand. Even The Bethlehem Press, a weekly, is now regularly sending a freelancer.
It kicked off at 6 PM last night. Emrick publicly thanks web designer Robin Schlegel, and committee members Steve Polles and Jeri Krondstadt for their hard work toward the completion of this project.
Here's part of what the township's press release tells us.
The site has more than fifteen pages of information and contains some of the following important features:
· The agendas and meeting minutes of the past year for both the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission.
· An extensive list of contact information for both emergency & non-emergency agencies.
· Links to a multitude of other municipal, educational and historical institutions, including the Nazareth School District and Nazareth Public Library.
· Several PDF files to download at home such as permit applications for increased convenience.
· A “New Resident” and “Frequently Asked Questions” page along with a page for Township news and upcoming events.
“The primary objective in creating our website is to make our local government as open and accessible to the public as we can. Second, it’s our goal to always attempt to meet the needs of our residents in an even more efficient and responsive manner and this website helps us do both,” Emrick said.
If there are any future questions, please contact the Upper Nazareth Township municipal building at (610) 759-5341 or e-mail us at email@example.com.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
But there's a reason for this. Republicans are butt ugly. If you look at my profile picture, you'll see that we Democrats are stunningly handsome. It's a curse. So God took pity on Republicans and made them math whizzes.
I think his tax reduction suggestion is worth exploring, and he's right about pensions. But I'd rather be handsome.
Melvin was a civil judge at that time, and the caseload was administered by then civil administrative judge John L. Musmanno. He was running for a seat on the superior court, too. But unlike Melvin, he spent little time travelling during the campaign, and attended to his judicial duties.
Who is John Musmanno?
PaProgressive tells us Musmanno "grew up in public housing in a family of modest means. His is another American success story, someone who made something of himself and now dedicates his life to serving others. He attended college because he won a caddie scholarship and worked his way through Washington and Jefferson College. He graduated Magna cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He went on to the Vanderbilt University School of Law where he earned his J.D. While there he was Assistant Editor of the Vanderbilt Law Review (a high honor)."
He was first elected as an Allegheny County judge in 1981. In 1995, he sought the Democratic nomination for the supreme court, but was defeated by Russell Nigro, who ultimately went on to win a seat in the general election. Ironically, Nigro became the first sitting justice to lose his retention bid last year, a fatality of voters indignant about the legislative and judicial paygrab.
Musmanno was elected to the superior court in 1997. If retained, he will be forced to retire in 2012, when he reaches mandatory retirement age.
Unlike Melvin or even Saylor, Musmanno's exrtrajudicial activities are low key. He doesn't try to sneak pocket knives onto a plane after being told he can't do so. He does not engage in five years worth of lawsuits, in two different states, over harmless anonymous comments posted on an Internet gossip site. I have spoken to some lawyers, who use words like "even" and "consistent" to describe this Pittsburgh jurist. PaProgressive, who has met with Musmanno, says this, "It's nice to speak with a Judge who doesn't think the world revolves around him, as I sometimes see on the local level." His self-effacing personality is evident in a video posted by Pennsylvania Democrats.
After reading several of his opinions, I have my own term for Musmanno - long ball hitter. He sits quietly in the superior court dugout until something really important is pitched at the court, and then he swings away with excellent opinions.
Musmanno is the Superior Court's Long Ball Hitter
I have reviewed Musmanno's eighty-nine online opinions. Seventeen of these are concurring or dissenting opinions. He appears to be the court's designated hitter - the judge who tackles the tougher cases.
1) A Case for King Solomon. - One of the more interesting of these cases involved an alienated couple arguing over who was entitled to their dead son's ashes. A judge, who must have been familiar with only half of the King Solomon tale, ordered the ashes to be divided and placed in two separate urns. Musmanno ruled that "the trial court abused its discretion in using its equitable powers to override the desires of one of the next of kin as to the division of Son's remains."
2) A trend that favors middle class consumers against corporate giants. - Musmanno's decisions demonstrate a keen understanding and appreciation of ordinary consumers who are often victimized by increasingly big businesses.
Cable giant Comcast was a defendant in a class action suit be subscribers forced to use remotes and cable box converters that were totally unnecessary. Its lawyers pointed to one of those fine print arbitration clauses in its contract with consumers. They even persuaded a Philadelphia court to condemn cable customers to the bottomless pit of arbitration. But not Musmanno. He quickly noted that these clauses are unenforceable when they are jammed down someone's throat in an adhesion contract.
He also ruled against H & R Block. Angry customers, who learned their "rapid refunds" were actually high interest loans, sued in a class action. A Philadelphia judge had decertified the class, and Musmanno easily navigated through complicated rules of appellate and civil procedure to determine that the trial court had acted improperly.
In a products liability case, Musmanno ruled that the implied warranty of merchantability extends not just to the person who bought the product, but to members of her family as well. In the particular case involved, a two year old boy snatched a lighter from his mother's purse, and started a fire that burned down a home and killed three people.
My favorite of these consumer cases is the Godiva chocolate case. A shopper at a local department store saw an open box of Godiva chocolates, and helped herself to a sample. "Well, one won't hurt me." A few minutes later, she came back and helped herself to a second.
That second sample hurt. She was seized by a department store narc, dragged off to a "loss prevention" office, handcuffed to a table, searched, presented with an admission form, and told to confess her heinous crime. She was handcuffed for nearly an hour until admitting, in writing, that she ate two pieces of chocolate she thought were free.
Here's how Musmanno reacted. "[The department store's] continued detention of [the shopper], in handcuffs, exceeds all bounds of decency and we express our outrage at such a procedure."
3) Musmanno and the Constitution. - In addition to his consumer cases, Musmanno has weighed important principles of double jeopardy and has balanced a jury's privacy rights against the media's need to know their names and addresses.
Musmanno is a judge. He served a full term as a trial judge before even thinking about an appellate court. When he did seek a seat on the superior court, he attended to his judicial duties first, unlike some of his colleagues. He has consistently tackled the Superior Court's more thorny legal questions, but his opinions demonstrate that he still understands what life without a black robe is like. I will vote to retain Musmanno.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
He was fined $157, and his board was confiscated as "evidence" for over a week. He had no idea that he was doing anything illegal because no signs are posted that prohibit skateboards in that area of the park, and the basketball court is right next to the frickin' skatepark.
This is pure harassment. In addition to the lack of notice, this skater was bothering no one. He even asked basketball players on the other court for permission before he began grinding. Police were told he had their permission, but that didn't matter.
At the time, I told you those charges should be taken from a basketball court to a real court because they would never stand up to scrutiny. Nazareth's finest, if they had any sense, would have dismissed the charges on their own motion.
But they refused, and when local attorney Gary Asteak heard the facts, he agreed to represent this young man.
At today's hearing, the case was quickly dismissed. Nazareth police had publicly argued we all have an affirmative obligation to familiarize ourselves with local park rules and regulations whenever we step foot inside a park. But attitudes change over time. And today, police "forgot" to produce a certified copy of the ordinance.
Asteak seized on this technicality, and the case was quickly blown out.
When I originally wrote about this incident, I was deeply concerned that police harassment would continue. But I was wrong. The skatepark has really changed skating patterns in the borough. And when goofy councilman Conrad Bowers arbitrarily decided to close the skatepark for a few hours this summer, it was actually police who spoke up for the kids. Acting police chief Alan Koch went toe to toe with Bowers, whose misguided decision to close the skatepark was quickly reversed.
I hope today's dismissal signals the end of Nazareth's bad skateboarding attitude. The young skateboarder who was cited won't be charged again anytime soon. He broke his ankle skateboarding.
At the skatepark.
What is the Superior Court?
Often called the court of second guess, the superior court is where most appeals from a trial court are heard. They also approve wiretap requests. The vast majority of the 8,201 appeals filed last year, were from criminal convictions. Although there are fifteen jurists, they usually sit in three-judge panels. Because the supremes are so reluctant to hear appeals, the superior court is usually the last bastion of hope for those seeking justice.
The fifteen superior court judges, whose annual salary is $165,342, are initially elected for a ten year term. After that, judges are retained by a simple "yes" or "no" statewide vote. Mandatory retirement occurs at age 70. The president judge, whose yearly take is $170,442, is elected by fellow judges once every five years.
Joan Orie Melvin is a Politically Ambitious Woman
A Pittsburgh native, Melvin first managed to get herself appointed as a judge in 1990, filling a vacancy. At that time, she had only been practicing law nine years. The following year, as an incumbent, she was elected to a full term as a common pleas judge. But she never served that term. A mere seven years later, she was on the campaign warpath again, this time winning her current seat on the superior court.
During the time she spent traipsing across the state, picking up votes, she pretty much ignored her responsibilities as a common pleas judge. An investigative report by a team of eleven reporters at the Post-Gazette, cast a very public spotlight on a very unresponsive Melvin, a person who obviously considers her personal ambition more important than her work as a judge.
Melvin thumbed her nose at a six-week trial term because a pesky little jury trial might interfere with her quest to become an appellate judge. Her courtroom was "virtually shut down . . . for several weeks" while she "spent numerous weekdays out of town campaigning."
After stewing for a few years on this intermediate court, she decided to take a stab for a seat with the supremes in 2003. She and Democrat Max Baer engaged in a money war, spending an obscene $3.34 million over one seat on the state high court. This exceeds the total amount spent in all judicial races during the previous two years. Forty-three per cent of this money came from lawyers, a drastic increase from the ten percent total in the 2001 race.
Although the Code of Judicial Conduct clearly permits judicial candidates to speak out on issues, Melvin still refused to do so. Max Baer, who eventually beat her, said this during a televised debate. "I think you have a right to know what I feel, what I believe in, who I am." And he chastised Melvin for hiding her personal views during a televised debate with him, but expressing her views on tort reform and abortion in comments to Melvin-friendly audiences.
As you've probably guessed, Melvin is politically connected. Her sister, Jane Orie, just happens to be a state senator. Incidentally, she's a member of the judiciary committee, too. According to The Insider, these two sisters have a "well-known long-standing political feud" with fellow Republican Melissa Hart. "If Hart came out for light, the Ories would back dark."
Judges like Melvin prove Norco DA John Morganelli's point - "judges are probably the most political animals in the political and legal jungle." But the Pennsylvania Bar Association still recommends her retention. That's no shocker, considering that these sycophants recommended the retention of insurance fraud Defendant Michael (call me Judge) Joyce, too.
Thin-Skinned Melvin Tries Some Legal Intimidation Against Cyber-Critics
In addition to being a political animal, Melvin is also a thin-skinned bully. She proved that through five years of quixotic litigation in two separate states over anonymous comments posted on a Pittsburgh-based political gossip site. A group of John Does had criticized her "misconduct" in asking Governor Ridge to appoint someone she knew to a judgeship. I'm not sure how that even constitutes defamation, but I guess it must be per se defamation to criticize a superior court judge.
First, she sued in Virginia, trying to learn the identity of the anonymous cretins who had sullied her sparkling reputation. She got nowhere.
She had a little more success on her home field when she filed a second lawsuit in Allegheny County. But America Online branded Melvin's attempt at intimidation "an illegitimate use of the courts to silence and retaliate against speakers." And Witold Walczak, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh ACLU, noted the important role of anonymous speech in a democracy. "Not only did The Federalist Papers and Thomas Paine's Common Sense, both printed pseudonymously, change the course of American history, but evidence today suggests that anonymous Internet speech played a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union."
The state supreme court eventually agreed, and ruled Melvin had to prove financial loss before demanding the identity of her critics. "[G]enerally, the constitutional right to anonymous free speech is deeply rooted in public policy that goes beyond this particular litigation, and ... it falls within the class of rights that are too important to be denied review."
Thankfully, Melvin abandoned her legal bullying. Never admitting she had been wrong, her attorney claimed it would have taken too many years.
Melvin Sues Again, Over That Payraise
Now with her defamation suit out of the way, Melvin took politics by litigation to a new level by suing to demand that the state pay her less money. She lost that suit, too. Here's what one of those dastardly anonymous cyber-critics said. "[F]or a sitting judge to seek a court order barring the payment to her of a pay raise--a raise the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had already ruled could not constitutionally be repealed--is an abuse of the very judicial system she purportedly represents. I will certainly vote 'no' on her retention."
Gee, I wonder if she's going to sue him.
Her Mean-Spirited Record From the Bench
Melvin has 139 written opinions online, and 31 of these are concurring or dissenting opinions. These opinions, quite frankly, reveal a mean-spirited person who should not be sitting in judgement of anyone. In her little world, juvenile adjudications would count as criminal convictions under the "three strikes" act. The fourth amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure would be meaningless. An insurance company contractually required to pay for a building in disrepair would not be required to do so unless that building collapsed. A father who disciplines his daughter would be subjected to a PFA order. On appeal, she would make her own credibility determinations on witnesses she never saw or heard, forbidden territory for an appellate judge.
Melvin might be a gifted politician, but she's not a gifted judge. Her attempt at legal intimidation could be expected from a major corporation, but a slapsuit from a sitting judge is bizarre. And her second suit over the payraise is pure grandstanding. Her money gathering, especially from lawyers, is obscene. And her contrarian opinions reveal an utter lack of compassion.Update: John Micek, with just a tad of sarcasm, tells us that PACleanSweep founder Russ Diamond may remove Melvin from his judicial hit list, directed at every judge up for retention. "If Judge Orie Melvin has paid back the net amount of everything she's received since the pay raise began, we'll definitely take her off our list of 'No' judges." Based on her entire record and history, I could never vote to retain her.
Monday, September 17, 2007
Don't take my word for it. Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli says much the same thing. "If anyone tries to tell you that judges are apolitical, tell them to call me. In my 26 years as a practicing lawyer, I have learned that judges are probably the most political animals in the political and legal jungle. Not all of them, of course. But many come to their positions with the same prejudices and bias that we all have from our life experience. The donning of the black robe allows them to hide behind the law while forming their own ideas of how things should be."
On November 6, we will decide whether to retain Republican Tom Saylor on Pennsylvania's Supreme Court for another ten years. He's already in trouble. According to a Daily News poll, only 18% of the voters have decided to support him. Many voters, disenchanted by our state officials, remain undecided. The purpose of this post is to provide you with facts upon which you can decide whether Saylor deserves your vote. I can't give him mine.
What is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court?
Pennsylvania's Supreme Court is our state court of "last resort," consisting of seven justices who are initially elected to ten-year terms. Their annual salary is $175,236. The justice with the most seniority is chief justice, who's paid $180,336. Justices also have an unlimited expense account for judicial bottles of beaujolais. After their initial ten year term expires, judges are retained by a simple "yes" or "no" statewide vote. And so it goes until mandatory retirement at age 70. So far, only one justice has ever lost a retention election.
Voters historically pay little attention to appellate court judges, but the supreme court ultimately decides the most important questions, from how we're taxed to school funding to who dies in the death chamber. Death penalty appeals are mandatory. In most other cases, the state's high court can simply refuse to consider a case. And most appeals are rejected.
In 2006, the state's high court handed down only 258 opinions, or 43 per justice. That's under one opinion every week! And these guys have law clerks who do most of the writing.
Administratively, the supreme court is responsible for maintaining a single, integrated judicial system. It has supervisory authority over all other state courts. It currently is computerizing court records throughout the state.
Who is Tom Saylor?
Saylor, born in 1946, is a native of Somerset County. That's the rural western Pennsylvania county where hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on 9/11. No aristocrat, the young Saylor bagged groceries at the local A&P. His dad was a bookkeeper and his mom a school board secretary. After graduating from law school, Saylor worked in the DA's office and private practice until 1982.
Since 1982, Saylor has been entrenched in Harrisburg, the land of midnight payraises. He worked for the state attorney general, and then left for private practice at a capitol law firm. In 1993, he was elected to the state superior court. Just four years later, he became a supreme. At the time of his initial election, he was "not recommended" by the Pennsylvania Bar Association evaluation committee. This time around, the high priests at the PBA give him their blessing, for whatever it's worth.
Saylor has been married to the same woman for 36 years. He has two adult children, a Baltimore school teacher and an air force pilot. His financial disclosure reports reveal his only sources of income are his salary as a supreme court justice and his Fidelity investment. Like most of us, he has a mortgage.
Although Saylor's roots are rural, he has been a resident and "worker" bee in the land of midnight payraises since 1982. His years in Harrisburg appear to have infected him. Some of his extrajudicial antics might make you think he's actually a state rep.
Evidence of this first surfaced back in 2005, when it was revealed that Saylor was one of six justices who spent $164,000 in taxpayer money for expenses that extended from $1,766 to frame a picture to $85 for a bottle of wine. Over a six month period, Saylor billed taxpayers for 34 carwashes for his publicly supplied car. Legal Intelligencer columnist Howard Bashman never bought Cappy's feeble "high society" justification. He felt this propensity to run up the public tab, by itself, was a good reason to vote NO.
Saylor let voters down a second time in 2005, during a bizarre incident at Harrisburg International Airport. When initially searched, he was told he couldn't carry a small, Swiss-army style, knife onto the plane, but could store it with checked luggage. So what did he do? He hid the knife inside a shoe. For that little trick, he was ultimately fined $750 and named by TalkLeft as "Stupid Criminal of the Week."
Saylor's Payraise Dissent
Saylor's supporters are quick to note he is the sole justice who dissented from the judicial and legislative payraise that the boys in Harrisburg awarded to themselves. But he is the only justice facing retention this year. His vote is no surprise. During oral arguments on the case, he kept his mouth shut. His dissent is political expedience.
In five short pages, Saylor pretty much agrees completely with the 100-page Castille majority. He only dissents because, in his view, judges' pay hikes could not legally be severed from the raises lawmakers awarded to themselves.
Dave Ralis, at the time, made this comment: "[F]or that false show of dissent, Saylor's head deserves to be the first to fall from the chopping block. He was simply trying to make himself look a little better than the rest. But when you read what Saylor actually said, he managed to make himself look worse."
Saylor's Opinions Limit Privacy and Expression Rights, and Expand State Police Power
In a review of 174 opinions published online, I see no Great Dissenter, standing up against a reckless state legislature. What I see instead is a judge who has shown a tendency to limit individual rights, while expanding the state's police power. Duquesne Law Review, referred to in Saylor's own campaign site, shares this view.
Saylor penned the majority opinion that gives a constitutional kiss to the Big Brother practice of stopping motorists at highway checkpoints. In doing so, he ignored the "cold hard facts" showing these roadblocks are a colossal waste of time. In his dissent, then Justice Nigro noted "the substantial intrusion that those checkpoints impose on the lives of law-abiding motorists, who must often wait in the backlog of traffic caused by the checkpoints even before enduring the actual stop by police once they reach the checkpoint."
Saylor has accelerated Pennsylvania's slow slide into a police state, with a concurring opinion in another case involving the warrantless recording of telephone conversations. A druggie had allowed police to tape his conversations with his supplier, and the court ruled this supplier had no reasonable expectation of privacy. To three members of the court, this was a bad call. "Today the majority holds that the Pennsylvania Constitution affords no protection against the government listening to, recording and reporting the details of our private telephone conversations. By holding that we have no expectation of privacy in the confidential messages and conversations transmitted from our telephones, it has placed the freedom of every citizen into the hands of the law enforcement authorities. . . . Following the majority's analysis to its logical conclusion, there is no constitutional precept preventing the government from tapping any individuals phone line for any reason."
A final illustration of Saylor's "Big Brother Knows Best" attitude, is demonstrated by his restrictive attitude towards our most fundamental right - free speech. In Pennsylvania, more than other states, free speech has long had a special meaning. Founder William Penn had been prosecuted in England for the "crime" of preaching to an unlawful assembly. Pennsylvania courts have broadly interpreted free expression, even when it involves nude dancing. Saylor, standing alone, would give legislative bodies more latitude in regulating speech.
Saylor Has a Mixed Record on Pennsylvanians' Right to Know
On his campaign site, Saylor claims that, time and again, he has favored the right of the public and the free press to access government documents and records. In truth, he has a mixed record. He proudly points to a decision in which he ordered the public disclosure of an audiotape made played at a preliminary hearing. But he fails to tell you he refused to sanction disclosure of a telephone call made to a 911 center, reporting a local shooting. He also denied a request from two state legislators to examine an accounting report that formed the basis of a $145 million settlement in litigation against the state.
Saylor and Citizen Access
I am astonished that Saylor actually takes credit for his logically tortured dissents in Nader and Romanelli, Green party candidates who were removed from the ballot in 2006. Nader was so clear that the majority found no need for an opinion. The Commonwealth Court had already ruled that "the signature gathering process was the most deceitful and fraudulent exercise ever perpetrated upon this Court."
Saylor's dissent was clearly a jab at the Commonwealth Court. Was Saylor really motivated by an altruistic desire to enhance third party ballot access? Or was he trying to help fellow Republican Rick Santorum, who was twenty points behind Bob Casey in the polls?
On other matters, Saylor has been downright draconian about citizen access to the courts. When a group of citizens took Delaware County to court, forcing it to adopt is first ever storm water management plan, he penned the opinion reversing a court order authorizing attorney fees. In an eminent domain case, he argued unsuccessfully against paying off a landowner's mortgage interest in condemned property.
Saylor and Medical Malpractice
Saylor proudly announces the endorsement of the Pennsylvania Orthopaedic Society, who loves his stance on medical liability "reform," i. e., making it more difficult for someone to recover damages against a negligent physician. I thought it was up to the legislature to make decisions like that. Silly me.
Following the Money
As of mid June, Saylor's warchest was standing tall at $65,099.83. It will get a lot bigger as the election approaches. Most of his money comes from lawyers who practice before the court, doctors who want to put a stop to medical malpractice and the pro-growth Pa Future Fund. It's a cornucopia of special interests.
Although Saylor strikes me as a decent man, I believe we can do better on the state's highest court. From his disingenuous dissent in the judicial payraise to his Big Brother view of government, we will suffer the loss of more individual liberties if he remains on the bench. His long residence in Harrisburg, coupled with his willing participation in judicial excesses, reveal him as an insider. Final confirmation of his allegiance to special interests comes from his campaign treasury. I'm voting NO.