Dis­grace­ful con­flict

Cam­paign cash casts a pall over Supreme Court

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Obituaries -

The seven state Supreme Court jus­tices poised to rule on whether a grand jury re­port on child sex­ual abuse will be made pub­lic col­lec­tively re­ceived more than $180,000 in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from lawyers now fight­ing over the doc­u­ment’s re­lease.

If that’s not a con­flict of in­ter­est, noth­ing is — a con­flict likely to erode pub­lic con­fi­dence in a court that has demon­strated par­ti­san­ship in the past and has no busi­ness in­ter­fer­ing in the grand jury’s work any­way.

By now, the pub­lic is used to fat­cat lob­by­ists and other big donors lin­ing the cam­paign cof­fers of po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates. If they’re elected and turn out to be toad­ies for spe­cial in­ter­ests, vot­ers can un­seat them in the next elec­tion. It may be dif­fi­cult, but most elected of­fi­cials have to run again every two or four years.

Not so judges. Once they’re elected, they face only low-key re­ten­tion votes every 10 years. They’re im­pos­si­ble to dis­lodge un­less they do some­thing in­de­fen­si­bly stupid, like get­ting caught up in a porno­graphic email scan­dal as for­mer state Supreme Court jus­tices Sea­mus McCaf­fery and J. Michael Eakin did. Both lost their robes over that one.

The ques­tion now is whether the court’s de­ci­sion on whether to re­lease a re­port on child sex­ual abuse by pri­ests in six dio­ce­ses will be in­flu­enced by the cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, rather than the le­gal ar­gu­ments, of donor-lawyers ar­gu­ing for or against the doc­u­ment’s re­lease. The ma­jor­ity of the do­na­tions came from lawyers and firms hop­ing to block the re­port.

A grand jury spent about two years in­ves­ti­gat­ing abuse in the Pitts­burgh, Greens­burg, Al­len­town, Erie, Har­ris­burg and Scran­ton dio­ce­ses. The dio­ce­ses pub­licly agreed not to chal­lenge the re­lease of the re­port. But the devil was in the de­tails. At least two dozen cur­rent and for­mer clergy mem­bers crit­i­cized by the grand jury de­cided to try to stop it them­selves, and they suc­ceeded in per­suad­ing the Supreme Court to sit on the re­port while it re­views their claims that they didn’t get a fair shake.

If the jus­tices kill the re­port, al­ter it, or­der it mod­i­fied or rule that the two dozen or so anony­mous pe­ti­tion­ers have the right to present their own ev­i­dence, they will fun­da­men­tally al­ter the grand jury process and un­der­cut its use­ful­ness as a law en­force­ment tool. Those crit­i­cized but not in­dicted by a grand jury al­ready have a right of re­but­tal and to have those state­ments ap­pended to the re­port. This is what the law al­lows, but the risk is that the court will rule it is not enough.

It says some­thing about the per­va­sive­ness of cam­paign spend­ing that all seven jus­tices — five Democrats and two Repub­li­cans — have re­ceived cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from one or more of the lawyers or firms fight­ing over re­lease of the re­port. This dis­grace­ful fi­nan­cial con­nec­tion gives the pub­lic rea­son to won­der whether cam­paign do­na­tions fac­tor into rul­ings in many of the courts across the state.

The court needs to re­lease the grand jury’s re­port with­out al­ter­ation. Then it needs to study ways to im­prove pub­lic con­fi­dence in the ju­di­ciary, in­clud­ing how to keep cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from cast­ing a pall over its own cases.

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