As media outlets are raising questions about whether the judge who arraigned Jerry Sandusky should have recused from the case, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC) is calling for a broader focus on judicial ethics. It appears that Magisterial District Judge Leslie Dutchcot, the judge who arraigned Sandusky and set what has been characterized as surprisingly low bail without tight restrictions during his release, has ties -- as a volunteer and donor -- to Sandusky's nonprofit The Second Mile.
As PMC Executive Director Lynn A. Marks explained, "Judge Dutchcot should have put this information on the record and given the parties an opportunity to request her recusal from the case. In fact, we believe that recusal would have been the wise decision, but Pennsylvania gives a lot of discretion to judges regarding recusal decisions." Without some discussion on the record about the Judge's ties to The Second Mile, Judge Dutchcot has created a perception of bias surrounding her handling of the case.
PMC Deputy Director Shira Goodman explained, "This case highlights the need for Pennsylvania to revisit the issue of recusal." Focus has been on recusal since a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case involving a West Virginia justice's refusal to recuse from a case involving someone who had made major campaign expenditures in support of his election. Although a committee is studying the Judicial Code, Pennsylvania is not among those states that have changed its recusal rules.
As the Sandusky case demonstrates, a judge's pre-existing relationships with parties or witnesses also present unique challenges related to recusal. "Judges need more guidance in making recusal decisions. Pennsylvania can and should provide more tools to judges through mandatory ethics education. Regular educational programs and discussion of ethical challenges will better prepare judges to make the difficult ethical calls that are part of their work," said Goodman.
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is a nonprofit court reform organization. www.pmconline.org<file:///\\pmcserver\shared\PROGRAM\COURTS-OTHER\RECUSAL\www.pmconline.org>