Pennsylvania high court justice hit with ethics charges

Associated Press

HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice was charged Tuesday with ethics violations that could lead to his removal after the state attorney general exposed lewd and offensive emails he swapped with friends and a state prosecutor through a private email account.

People walk by the Pennsylvania Judicial Center Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. A Pennsylvania ethics board is accusing state Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin of violating both judicial and constitutional codes of conduct by exchanging lewd and offensive emails with friends. The Judicial Conduct Board on Tuesday said it filed four charges with a disciplinary court that has the power to remove judges. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The state Judicial Conduct Board filed a 52-page complaint with the Court of Judicial Discipline that accuses Justice Michael Eakin of violating both judicial and constitutional codes of conduct.

The board said his actions gave the appearance of impropriety, that he didn’t respect the court’s nondiscrimination policy, that he detracted from the dignity of his office and that he sent emails that a person of reasonable sensitivity would find objectionable.

The board claims Eakin engaged in extreme conduct that brought his judicial office into disrepute through email content that included photos of nude women, sexually suggestive themes, gender and socioeconomics stereotypes, anti-gay content and violence toward women.

FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2011, file photo, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin poses for photographs with the court's other justices at Philadelphia's historic Old City Hall. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Eakin released a statement saying that having the Court of Judicial Discipline take up the matter “brings the opportunity for transparency of process, based on the actual facts and not speculation and mischaracterization. As such, I welcome it. I have cooperated with candor and openness, and will continue to do so.”

Eakin’s role in the email scandal became public a year ago, with reports that he received two emails in a private email account with pictures of topless or completely nude women, plus one allegedly racist email in 2010.

The board investigated him and another justice caught up in the scandal, Seamus McCaffery, who was suspended by his fellow justices and subsequently retired. Eakin was cleared, but Attorney General Kathleen Kane two months ago disclosed more than 1,000 of his emails to the board, triggering the investigation that resulted in the charges filed Tuesday.

The complaint describes dozens of emails, some sent by Eakin and a majority that were sent to him. They include many photos of nude or topless women, crude jokes and salacious Internet memes.

Among 18 emails the board said he sent to a group of golfing buddies were a joke about a woman being beaten by her husband, a promise to slap a woman’s buttocks at a Christmas party and what the board described as “a sexually suggestive thread/conversation” with a lawyer at the attorney general’s office about a woman who worked for Eakin at the time.

He also sent a link about a lawyer suspended for a year by his court for trading legal services for oral sex. Eakin’s email asked whether another lawyer in the firm got “a partnership cut.”

Kane argued the emails could violate court rules that require judges to act in a way that promotes public confidence in the judiciary and that prohibit them from acting in ways that would appear to undermine their independence, integrity and impartiality. Eakin’s private emails were discovered on the servers of the attorney general’s office because at least one of the office’s employees was on the exchanges.

“The attorney general believes that this action should have been taken long ago, that it confirms her contention that the old boys’ network protects itself at every turn,” her spokesman, Chuck Ardo, said.

This weekend, after The Philadelphia Inquirer reported details about more emails linked to Eakin, Gov. Tom Wolf said Eakin should resign because of his conduct and “the real concern that he could not be impartial in presiding over cases involving the groups of people he disparaged in his emails.”

The board noted he used state-issued computers and a pseudonym, John Smith, to send and receive objectionable emails from his Yahoo account.

Eakin, 67, a Republican and former Cumberland County district attorney, has been a member of the high court since 2002.

Kane exposed Eakin’s emails along with a wider exchange of explicit and pornographic emails by state prosecutors and other members of law enforcement, prompting a wave of firings or disciplinary measures.

Kane’s office discovered those emails during an internal review of how the office under her predecessors handled the case of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach now serving a lengthy prison sentence after being convicted in 2012 of 45 counts of child sexual abuse.