Citywide Recusals – Good or Bad?

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court President Judge C. Darnell Jones’ decision to remove the city’s judges from two political hot potato cases in the last week has certainly gotten people’s attention.

First he asked for an outside judge to hear arguments regarding a challenge to plans to build casinos in Fishtown and South Philadelphia. Then yesterday he requested an outside judge to hear the legal challenge to city Democratic Party chief Bob Brady’s mayoral bid.

I can’t remember ever seeing the city’s judges removed en masse from a local matter, let alone twice in the same week. The question I have for the legal community is: is it a good move or a bad one?

When I heard about Jones’ decision regarding the casino case, I thought it was a smart move on a number of fronts. Given the big impact and money involved in gambling, as well as some of the lawyers and power players attached to some of these projects, it would have been likely that any local judge assigned to the case would have potentially faced a request for recusal. When you factor in things like a judicial election year and the bad aftertaste still lingering from the pay raise fiasco, Jones’ move eliminated any potential appearance problems or controversies for the court or its judges.

Several people I spoke to following the casino case agreed with my view, although I know one or two people who thought it could create a problematic precedent. Their position could best be summed up as: “Is the court going to recuse itself every time it has a politically-tinged case?” The folks at Pennsylvanians for Moderns told me they thought Jones’ decision – because it acknowledged the public perception problems – was an indictment of judicial elections.

But now Jones has removed the city from another case, and all I can think about are the comments from those who worried about a precedent being set. According to reporter Asher Hawkins’ story in today’s Legal, one of the lawyers representing a group challenging Brady’s candidacy, Paul Rosen of Spector Gadon & Rosen, sent Jones a letter Monday calling attention to his decision in the gaming case.

It’s a given that as party chief Brady has had a hand in getting folks elected to the bench. But are the perception problems and/or potential conflicts as pronounced as in the gambling case? Or are they more so?

I informally posed that question to a number of lawyers today. Almost universally all of them said they thought Jones made the right call. Many said they thought it was even more appropriate – given Brady’s standing in Philadelphia – in the challenge to Brady than in the casino case.

But the question I have for the rest of the legal community is: what do you think? If you’ve got an opinion, let us know.

Regardless of whether you support Jones’ decisions or not, I think you have to admit that they represent a pretty honest and open acknowledgment of public perception problems – something I think courts are tone-deaf to at times.

–Hank Grezlak, Editor-in-Chief

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One Comment on “Citywide Recusals – Good or Bad?”


  1. I agree with your position, Hank. I think any gestures of honesty in this city are a good thing given the recent rise in corruption with local government. It’s quite natural for people to instantly start hypothesizing about a snowball effect, but I believe each case/topic must be deal with on an ad hoc basis. Thanks for raising this interesting issue.


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