Pa. Supreme Court robed in notoriety

June 07, 1994|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Somber and dignified, the high court in most of the nation's states manage to hew closely to a time-worn image of judicial rectitude.

Then there's the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Brawling, tainted and occasionally ridiculous, Pennsylvania's top court draws notices more worthy of a roller derby team than the Solomonic halls of justice.

To wit:

They are the loser court of the nation, an absolute laughingstock -- Ronald K. L. Collins, law professor, George Washington University.

It's a bad court with no sense of judicial restraint and an overblown sense of its own power and judgment -- Bruce Ledewitz, law professor at Duquesne University.

Decisions from Pennsylvania are either oddities or comic relief -- Pennsylvania state Sen. David Heckler.

Only a week ago, one of those rulings touched off alarms not only in Pennsylvania but across the nation. In a unanimous opinion, the court ruled that a verbal "no" to a sexual assailant is insufficient grounds for a woman to prove she was raped. Women's advocates and prosecutors called the decision a severe setback that would require women to physically resist and risk serious injury to prove rape.

Yesterday, attention returned from the court's judicial judgment to the behavior of one its members. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives formally notified the Senate that it had impeached Justice Rolf Larsen, the heir apparent as chief justice of the court and a man renowned for his eccentricities. The charges against him include perjury, using court workers to get him prescription drugs and giving preference in his judicial actions to lawyer friends.

Justice Larsen is expected to be tried before the Senate this summer. He is the first Pennsylvania public official to be impeached in 183 years.

While the scandal most directly concerns Justice Larsen, 59, he has managed to draw unflattering attention to his fellow justices as well, some of whom he accused of egregious behavior of their own from illegal wiretapping to political payoffs to an attempt to kill him by running him over outside a fancy Philadelphia hotel.

Though a special grand jury ultimately dismissed those charges, it did find a court in severe need of repair, a court where ill-conceived practices and customs and an atmosphere of "suspicion and mistrust" were compromising the quality of justice in Pennsylvania.

The court's rulings are widely perceived to be an inconsistent, illogical muddle. Its internal operations are not considered any better. With no system to track cases, the court is known for long, inexplicable delays in rulings.

In one well-known episode, a trial judge was forced to dismiss the case against a murder defendant because it took the high court more than 3 1/2 years to issue a ruling on evidence.

Bitter court infighting

If Justice Larsen wasn't popular with his colleagues, nobody else seemed to be, either. Nasty memos between members have found their way into the press. And bitter infighting culminated in a courthouse coup in 1989, when associate justices stripped the chief judge of most of his administrative functions while enhancing their own authority over court operations.

"It's an embarrassment," said state Rep. Jeff Piccola, a member of the House Judiciary Committee that investigated Justice Larsen and one of the House members who will prosecute him in the Senate.

Justice Larsen's problems have created renewed hope about the most popular proposal to rehabilitate the court. For decades, reformers have attributed the sickness in Pennsylvania's appellate courts to the method by which judges reach the bench: partisan elections.

Unlike Maryland and a majority of states, Pennsylvania elects its judges after campaigns that now have all the trappings of politics. "These are slam-bang, partisan politics with real fund raising, polling, media consultants and shaking hands," said James E. Tierney, who served as a special counsel to the grand jury investigating the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

A small but influential minority -- particularly labor unions and plaintiff attorneys -- forks over a great deal of money to affect the outcomes of the election.

Many say the ties between money and the courts have destroyed their credibility. "As a litigant, you shouldn't be sitting there wondering if their lawyer made a large contribution to the judge or if yours did," said Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

Judge faces accusations

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