Antithetical to the privilege of holding public office

Based on stipulations of fact in lieu of trial, the Court of Judicial Discipline has fined former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin $50,000 for exchanging “sordid and offensive” e-mails with friends and professional acquaintances.  In re Eakin, Opinion (Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline March 24, 2016).  The justice had resigned on March 15.

The justice had a personal yahoo e-mail address that did not identify him by name or judicial title but as “John Smith.”  The justice used his personal e-mail address, while on his Commonwealth-issued computer, to communicate with a group of men who went on golfing vacations, played fantasy football, and engaged in other social activities together.

The justice sent 1 e-mail to the golfing group that included a photograph of a semi-nude woman and sent the group approximately 17 other e-mails with gender and ethnic stereotypes or inappropriate and chauvinistic statements.  In particular, the Court noted 3 e-mail exchanges between the justice and a deputy attorney general that were “strikingly egregious in light of the fact that the justice was talking about his judicial employees.”

The justice also received e-mails from the golfing group and “blast e-mails” from a friend who was a criminal defense attorney.  Approximately 130 of the e-mails contained photographs of nude or semi-nude women, video clips of comedy skits with sexually-suggestive themes, photographic slide shows of faux “motivational posters,” homophobic content, jokes about violence against women, and jokes based on negative gender, racial, ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic stereotypes.

Addenda to the Court’s opinion describe the e-mails, which are dated from 2008 to 2014.

The Court found that the justice failed to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.  The Court concluded that the justice’s actions, “although they occurred outside of deciding cases or holding sessions of court, still can be fairly considered to be ‘on-bench’ conduct,” noting the justice conversed “in a sexually suggestive manner about employees in his judicial office” and used Commonwealth-issued computer equipment and that some of the individuals with whom he exchanged e-mails were also using government-supplied computers and e-mail servers.  Further, the Court stated, his “position as a justice of the Supreme Court conferred upon him not only the duty to decide cases, but also significant administrative responsibilities for our justice system.”

Finding that the justice’s conduct “drastically damaged the reputation of the state judiciary” and “dramatically lessened public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the entire Judiciary,” the Court noted the “harsh criticism” of his conduct from private citizens, community leaders, and legal and governmental officials and the news reports about his conduct both state-wide and nationally.  The Court explained:

Whether labelled misogynistic, racially-biased, biased against national origin, or biased toward sexual orientation, [the e-mails] represent a list of topics which should give any jurist pause.  The list also corresponds, in a number of instances, with categories protected by the laws of the United States and of our Commonwealth.  Significantly, they could cause citizens to wonder whether their cases received unbiased consideration by Respondent, something that we find abhorrent to the principles to which Respondent has ostensibly dedicated his entire professional career.  A reasonable inference that Respondent lacked the impartiality required of judges also fundamentally lessens public confidence in the judiciary.

The Court acknowledged that the justice had expected the e-mails would remain private and that humor is often “in poor taste and rooted in the extreme.”  However, the Court noted the probability that the e-mails would become public given that government equipment and judicial and government internet servers were being used.  Moreover, it concluded, “the emails demonstrated a misjudgment by Respondent, both in his understanding of how electronic communications work, as well as the substantive content of those communications.”

Noting its “disgust with, and disapproval of, the sordid and offensive communications giving rise to this case,” the Court stated that “the common thread of the emails, with their imagery of sexism, racism, and bigotry, is arrogance and the belief that an individual is better than his or her peers.  Such beliefs are antithetical to the privilege of holding public office, where the charge is to serve, not demean, our citizens.”

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