A three-judge panel of Pennsylvania’s Court of Judicial Discipline suspended Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin with pay last week. The judges said the court “is deeply and profoundly troubled by even a remote possibility that the patently discriminatory and offensive views and attitudes expressed” in emails received and/or shared by the justice under a fictitious name “may have impacted Justice Eakin’s judicial work.” Eakin, a Republican from West Donegal Township, has said he did not intend for the emails to become public and said last week that they have “nothing to do with (his) performance on the job.” Whether Eakin is to face any further sanction — potentially including removal from the bench — awaits the outcome of a trial expected to begin next month.
Justice Eakin’s emails were bad enough.
And, yes, we have editorialized previously on how disturbing it was that Eakin was sharing emails that joked about slapping a female employee’s backside and about a woman beaten black and blue by her husband. We have expressed concern previously about Eakin’s private email address, its use for material degrading to women, gays and racial minorities, and the questions that raises about his ability to treat all fairly as a Supreme Court justice.
The new and disturbing wrinkle in Eakin’s email scandal is the part of his defense that comes down to a frustration that none of these emails was meant to be made public.
“Perhaps my demeanor is one of the boys,” Eakin told the court on Dec. 21. “But what I sent was to people who were also one of the boys. It was in the locker room.”
As the court noted, despite having created a Yahoo.com account in the name of John Smith for such banter, Eakin “should have had a lower expectation of privacy” regarding emails sent on his work computer.
More importantly, a justice of integrity would avoid degrading humor about groups of people as a matter of character.
It calls to mind a quote often attributed to C.S. Lewis: “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
As the court noted in its order suspending Eakin last week, until a trial can review his conduct more closely, “the integrity of the Pennsylvania judiciary has been and continues to be subject to disrespect.”
That’s for sure.
“The only means to ensure the public’s confidence in the Pennsylvania judiciary is to suspend (him) pending the full trial,” the panel’s order also said.
Eakin did apologize during a Dec. 21 hearing before the Court of Judicial Discipline.
“What I sent I sent, and I am sorry for that beyond words,” he said.
But, he didn’t leave it at that.
“The media circus cannot be ignored, but it is not public opinion,” he added.
While, as Eakin noted, some of the emails were “a half-dozen years old,” the fact that he set up a private email address for such inappropriate messages remains disturbing, and something the Court of Judicial Discipline rightly wants to consider.
Some have raised understandable concern over the fact that Eakin’s suspension is with pay. But the court’s decision to offer Eakin a trial speaks well of our system. To deny him pay during the process would be at odds with the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
The Court of Judicial Discipline is correct that, given the cloud the emails have cast over the judiciary, Eakin had to be suspended. And a public trial should determine any further punishment.
Like all Pennsylvanians, we put our faith in the court to do the right thing. The seriousness with which it has addressed Eakin’s emails and their potential effect on the public’s faith in the judiciary bodes well.
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Court right to judge Eakin’s ‘private’ emails