PSU scandal: Wake up call for judges

November 17, 2011

Justice at Stake, a legal reform group dedicated to protecting fair and impartial courts, has issued the following statement on the case of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State football coach accused of sex crimes.

The Jerry Sandusky case should be a wakeup call for judges everywhere. It reminds us all of the urgent need for greater public transparency in deciding when a judge should, or should not, step down from a case.

A key reason for judicial recusal is to protect public trust in the courts. This requires a clear public record of any associations and actions that might reasonably cast doubt on a judge’s impartiality.

News reports indicate that Magistrate Judge Leslie Dutchcot, who set Sandusky’s bail, has prior connections with the Second Mile charity, which Sandusky founded. Judge Dutchcot has donated money and volunteered time to Second Mile, and she reportedly benefited from a 2007 election fundraiser hosted by Robert Poole, the charity’s board chair.

The information available has been enough to raise reasonable questions about Judge Dutchcot’s fairness and impartiality in this case. In addition, Judge Dutchcot could, and should, have done more to inform all parties of her connections to the Second Mile charity.

As this case shows, any action in a court of law can attract a storm of public attention. Had Judge Dutchcot informed all parties of her connections to Second Mile, there still would be debate over her bail decision, but parties to the case would have had the opportunity to seek her recusal. A more transparent process might well have changed events in the courtroom. At the least, greater transparency could have addressed suggestions of impropriety and favoritism that carry the potential to damage the reputation of all courts.

Justice at Stake also supports Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts in urging that Pennsylvania courts revisit the state’s rules on recusal, which remain unchanged since the 2009 Caperton v. Massey ruling addressed ethics decisions relating to money in judicial elections.

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