Supreme Court candidates debate judicial ethics, gift policy
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The two candidates fighting for a full term on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court laid out plans for greater transparency and improved ethics by the judiciary during a campaign forum Wednesday, but they split on whether to ban outright gifts to judges.
Democrat Dwayne Woodruff, a family court judge in Pittsburgh, and Republican Sallie Mundy, who was appointed last year to fill an unexpired term on the high court, fielded several questions on judicial ethics during a campaign forum at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg.
Woodruff said he favors a blanket ban on gifts to judges, while Mundy said she supports limits on gifts but does not want to reduce the kinds of valuable communications that occur between judges and lawyers at bar association conferences.
Three justices, but not Mundy, reported this year they accepted travel to a bar association meeting at the swank Westin St. Maarten Dawn Beach Resort in the Netherlands Antilles.
“I wouldn’t want to formulate any rule that would have a chilling effect on those types of informal and formal meetings between the bar and the judiciary,” said Mundy, a Tioga resident who spent several years on the intermediate-level Superior Court before becoming a justice.
She said she has never been offered or accepted a gift, calling the topic “an appropriate area to look into.”
Woodruff said the public’s perception of the judiciary was at stake.
“That’s how evil creeps in — a little bit here, a little bit there,” said Woodruff, a former defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “For me, eliminate the whole thing.”
The ethics reports filed earlier this year also showed one justice accepted a pair of $500 tickets to the Pennsylvania Society meeting in New York, while another justice disclosed $650 in tickets to see the Pittsburgh Penguins and Pirates.
As for transparency, Woodruff said the courts would benefit from efforts to provide greater public understanding of “what we do, how we do it and why we do it,” while Mundy said the justices should take a cue from lower courts and occasionally hold arguments at courthouses outside Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Asked about the state’s method of electing judges, Woodruff said he would prefer a hybrid in which a panel determines whether judges are qualified, then the public votes on them. Mundy said it was not likely that a merit selection group would have recommended her, as the resident of a sparsely populated county along the New York line.
Democrats currently hold a 5-2 majority on the court. The election is Nov. 7.