Tuesday, November 22, 2016
DA Wants Conflicted Clerk, Biased Judge, Off Overdose Homicide
When County Council sought information about payments from the Controller, President Judge Stephen Baratta fired off a condescending missive, telling Council to mind its own business and that it has no authority to set salaries. It was a misstatement of the law, a point confirmed by Council Solicitor Phil Lauer.
This issue is not going away. In fact, it's been placed on the front burner, thanks to a motion filed yesterday by DA John Morganelli. It involves a homicide case against a heroin dealer accused of delivering a fatal overdose in Forks Township.
According to this motion, Morganelli was forced to ask the entire Northampton County bench to recuse itself because there were "a number of contacts and communications between the defendant's family and at least two judges."
Think about that for a moment. We're not talking about some incidental contact with a judge at the food store. The DA has referred to a number of contacts between the defendant's family and at least two judges.
What were these judges thinking? Seriously. I doubt they were discussing the weather. A third judge, Jennifer Sletvold, was Phil Lauer's law partner. He represents the defendant. So she's out, too.
As a result of Morganelli's motion, a senior judge from Philly, John Braxton, was brought in to hear the case. But that presented another problem because his law clerk, Catherine Kollet, is a criminal defense attorney who practices in Northampton County and is in fact a court-appointed lawyer who represents indigent defendants when there is a conflict with the Public Defender's Office. Since she represents criminal defendants and was appointed by a court that has already recused itself, Morganelli argues it would be impossible for her to act as a "neutral, judicial law clerk."
Braxton refused to remove her, claiming she is his clerk, and has worked for him in other counties.
He then reduced Fisher's bail from $500,000 to $100,000, even though evidence in a prior drug delivery case shows that he failed to comply with bail conditions. Fisher was unleashed on the public the very next day.
Morganelli did some research and discovered that Kollet's participation as a judicial law clerk is a direct violation of a Supreme Court Rule that bans lawyers from being law clerks in the counties where they practice. Even more disturbing, Braxton's statement that Kollet works for him in other counties is demonstrably false, according to Morganelli.
So let's sum up. The entire Northampton County bench has been forced to recuse itself in a homicide case because two judges were unable to keep their mouths shut when approached by the defendant's family. Then a clerk is brought into the case who actively practices criminal law in the very county where she is advising the court in a criminal matter. Senior Judge Braxton refuses to disqualify her, even though a Supreme Court rule specifically bars law clerks from practicing law in the county where they clerk. He also states falsely that Kollet is his clerk in other counties. Then he unleashes a heroin dealer accused of delivering a fatal overdose on an unsuspecting public in the middle of an epidemic.
Nobody is above the law. Not overpaid law clerks. Not judges who engage in ex parte conversations with the family of an accused killer. Not a Senior Judge from Philly who thumbs his nose at a Supreme Court rule regarding the use of law clerks, and compounds that error with misrepresentations about using that clerk in other counties.
Morganelli, who is not above the law, had a duty to file this motion. He is reacting to a failure in a system that is supposed to deliver justice.