Thursday, December 08, 2005

Judges' lawsuit shows that greed is alive and well

This editorial was published Thursday, December 8, 2005, in The Mercury, Pottstown, Pa.

The greed in Pennsylvania hit another milestone this week.

Earlier this week, two Philadelphia trial judges filed lawsuits within a day of each other seeking to reinstate the unpopular government pay raises, claiming the legislature violated the state constitution when it repealed the increases two weeks ago.

The possibility of a lawsuit being filed by a judge has been rumored since lawmakers, worried about their re-election prospects next year, began publicly considering a repeal of the pay raises in early November.

The repeal became law on Nov. 16, after legislators endured four months of heavy public criticism that followed the July pay hike. The furor among citizens focused on the size of the legislative raises, the secrecy with which they passed the legislation, and the legal maneuver that allowed lawmakers to skirt a constitutional ban against midterm raises and collect the money right away.

The pay-raise fallout inspired movements to sweep legislators out of office, but without any lawmakers up for election this year, voters demonstrated their anger on Election Day by rejecting Supreme Court Justice Russell M. Nigro, who was running for a second 10-year term. Similarly, each of the state’s approximately 420 Common Pleas Court judges are elected to 10-year terms.

However, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Albert W. Sheppard Jr., who filed the suit this week, will soon reach the mandatory retirement age of 70, meaning he will not face voters again before he retires from his elected spot on the bench. So, it seems he had nothing to lose by suing to get back his raise. That is, nothing to lose except respect and a semblance of decency in this commonwealth, where greed and ineffectiveness are the rule instead of the exception.

The second suit was filed by Judge John W. Herron. Both suits cite a portion of the constitution that prohibits the legislature from lowering the salaries of judges during their terms of office “unless by law applying generally to all salaried officers of the commonwealth.”

The passage was created to stop state legislators from punishing judges by docking their pay. The suit seeks to reinstate the raises for all three branches of government. House and Senate leaders stressed that the repeal was not intended to punish judges, and that they believed it complied with the constitutional definition of “all salaried officers.”

“This is not intended to be punitive,” the Senate’s Republican leader, David J. Brightbill, said on Nov. 16 as he introduced the legislation on the Senate floor. “This is intended to rectify a mistake.”

Voters across Pennsylvania have made it clear they were not satisfied by the repeal; they are still smarting from the arrogance and greed displayed by the pay-raise vote in July and the ensuing reluctance among legislators to be held accountable. Judges are not above voters’ ire, as the ouster of Nigro demonstrated.

The vote represented the first time since retention votes were instituted that a sitting state Supreme Court justice has failed retention. Sheppard may not have cause to worry about his own retention since he will be retiring, but the integrity of public office and of judges is at stake.

The lawsuits demonstrate the pervasive qualities of greed among elected officials. They may have been filed by just two individuals, but voters have proven they are ready and willing to take out other elected officials to prove their point.

Sheppard and Herron have done a great disservice to their colleagues on the bench.

Copyright 2005 The Mercury

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