Friday, April 18, 2014

Keep justice system transparent to public

June 20. 2013 11:38PM
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The level of confidence Pennsylvanians have in their justice system has dropped again with reports that the FBI is investigating state Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery.

Federal authorities don’t comment on active investigations, but sources told The Inquirer that they are looking at the hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney referral fees paid to McCaffery’s wife, Lise Rapaport, who is also the justice’s chief aide.

Public officials can’t use their office for personal gain. But regardless of what transpires in the federal investigation, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille believes McCaffery acted improperly. “Whenever she received a referral fee, it’s marital property,” Castille said. “That would appear to be — just given those facts — a violation of the Ethics Act.”

The obvious animosity between Castille and McCaffery only adds to public uneasiness about the court system. It doesn’t help that McCaffery reportedly blames Castille for leaking a report the chief justice commissioned on Philadelphia Traffic Court. It suggested that McCaffery was involved in fixing a traffic ticket issued to his wife.

Each allegation against McCaffery deserves the attention of the state’s Judicial Conduct Board, which has the authority to figure out what happened. And whether or not any misconduct occurred, the board should fully disclose its findings to reassure the public that a thorough investigation took place.

The Justice Department’s findings should be made similarly public. The FBI does not tend to explain the results even of lengthy investigations if they do not lead to criminal charges. But with the reputation of Pennsylvania’s highest court at stake, it should make an exception. No cloud of uncertainty should be left hanging over McCaffery.

Castille says that only the chief justice can give a court aide permission to practice law, which he contends Rapaport did by making referrals. But an attorney for the couple says that’s not true. Dion G. Rassias noted that McCaffery has diligently reported the referral fees, which are allowed virtually without restriction in Pennsylvania.

McCaffery should do more than that. He should reveal the amount and source of each referral fee his wife has received. While there is no evidence that he ruled on cases for which Rapaport received a fee, his lack of disclosure is hardly what one would expect from someone who asks others for the whole truth.

It’s time to clear the air. Let the investigations take their course, and let the public be informed.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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