Pennsylvania justice suspended over lewd emails

AP News
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Posted: Dec 22, 2015 6:34 PM

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice was suspended from his job with pay Tuesday while a state judicial ethics court considers allegations his email exchanges, including photos of nude or topless women, crude jokes and salacious Internet memes, have tainted the court system.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Judicial Discipline described Justice Michael Eakin's emails as insensitive and inappropriate regarding gender, race, sexual orientation and ethnicity.

"The only means to ensure the public's confidence in the Pennsylvania judiciary is to suspend (him) pending the full trial," the panel wrote.

Eakin's suspension is the latest fallout from an email scandal that has roiled Pennsylvania's legal and law enforcement community for over a year. Fellow Justice Seamus McCaffery abruptly retired last year after being suspended over his participation in the email swapping.

The emails were uncovered as part of Attorney General Kathleen Kane's internal investigation into how the office handled the Jerry Sandusky child molestation investigation before she was elected.

The judges said they were particularly concerned about two exchanges between Eakin and Jeff Baxter, a deputy attorney general who worked for Eakin when he was Cumberland County district attorney.

The judges said the two men commented on "the physical attributes of female employees in (Eakin's) office as well as sexually suggestive observations. Clearly, these emails, which address judicial employees, are extremely inappropriate and offensive."

Eakin's lawyer said they were disappointed but respected the process and hoped a trial would be scheduled soon. The court order set a pretrial conference for Jan. 21 in Harrisburg.

Eakin, 67, has been on the high court since 2002. If the court rules against him at trial, he faces a range of possible punishment, up to permanent removal from the bench.

The order noted that Eakin used government computers to send and receive the emails, and sent some to government email accounts. The judges said that meant Eakin, who used a Yahoo.com account in the name of John Smith, should have had a lower expectation of privacy.

Eakin has insisted the emails did not affect his job performance, but the judges said they were "deeply and profoundly troubled by even a remote possibility that the patently discriminatory and offensive views and attitudes expressed in the emails underlying this case may have impacted Justice Eakin's judicial work." They said if there's any evidence it has, that evidence can be part of his trial.

The Judicial Conduct Board, which investigates and brings cases of alleged misconduct by judges, charged Eakin earlier this month with trading emails that someone of reasonable sensibilities would consider offensive, bringing the court system into disrepute. He has acknowledged sending and receiving objectionable emails but insists they were not intended to be made public.

The board complaint described in detail the emails he sent or received between 2008 and 2014.

"Perhaps my demeanor is one of the boys," Eakin told the court Monday. "But what I sent was to people who were also one of the boys. It was in the locker room. I allowed, I created something that could be released. Shame on me and it won't happen again."

The justice's lawyers say he sent several "inappropriate and chauvinistic" emails about visiting strip clubs on annual golf trips. They've characterized them as male banter, and argued he didn't send pornography or give his views on legal or political affairs.

Kane, a Democrat, is battling criminal charges she leaked secret grand jury material to a newspaper and lied about it. The state Senate has begun proceedings that could result in her removal from office.