Creaky wheels of justice

Appellant Rachel Shapiro
Appellant Rachel Shapiro
Posted: May 24, 2012

LAST YEAR, Rachel Shapiro had a dispute with a contractor and took her case to Common Pleas Court. She lost.

She appealed the decision to Superior Court, and then … nothing happened. The case hasn’t moved forward, and it’s been 15 months.

What’s causing the holdup? Common Pleas Judge James Murray Lynn.

When someone appeals a judge’s decision, the judge must provide a written explanation, called an opinion, for the appeal to proceed. The opinion is due 60 days after an appeal is filed.

Lynn, after ruling against Shapiro, has kept this appeal on hold for more than a year. Not that Shapiro should take it personally: According to court records, Lynn has two other unwritten opinions holding up appeals that have been sitting on his desk for 12 months and 15 months, respectively.

Even the opinions he has written recently have taken him a while to get to: The two he wrote this year were both due in early 2011. And the two he wrote in 2011 took him nine months and 18 months, respectively

Other judges don’t take this long. We randomly checked the records of 16 of 32 Common Pleas judges who hear civil cases. Most took about two to three months on average to file opinions. A few took four to five months.

Lynn used to be better, too. Between 2005 and 2009, it usually took him three to five months to file an opinion.

Lynn was elected to the Court of Common Pleas in 1991 and won retention elections in 2001 and 2011, despite the Philadelphia Bar Association rating him “not recommended” both times. In 2001, former Daily News columnist Jill Porter urged voters not to retain Lynn, calling him a “notorious slacker.” Lynn did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Supervising Judge Allan Tereshko, who oversees the civil-trial division, told us that Lynn had a rough year. He had two deaths in his family and has also been sick.

Still, Tereshko said, there’s “no excuse for not being timely” with opinions. He said he would speak with Lynn about the delay. Shortly after our conversation, Tereshko told us Lynn said he’d write the opinion next week.

We’re sorry for Lynn’s troubles and we understand that judges are human. But the wheels of justice need to turn. What happens if a judge won’t, or can’t, fulfill duties?

WHO JUDGES THE JUDGES?

If a judge doesn’t file opinions in a timely fashion, the consequences are pretty light, it seems. A delinquent judge should get a reminder from Superior Court. Superior Court Judge Susan Gantman says that if a judge doesn’t file an opinion 90 days after the appeal is filed, her office alerts the judge and the Court of Common Pleas of the lateness and asks the judge to explain the delay.

“All the judges are acutely aware they’re late,” Gantman says.

But the Superior Court’s authority stops there – it can only refer problems to the Judicial Conduct Board. Superior Court President Judge Corry Stevens, who has been at the Superior Court for 13 years, says he can’t remember that ever happening over a late opinion.

The Judicial Conduct Board’s investigations are not public, but a spokeswoman for the Court of Judicial Discipline, where complaints the Board finds valid eventually go, said no case has ever been filed against Lynn.

A few times a year, Gantman’s office also sends Common Pleas President Judge Pamela Dembe a list of judges who are behind on their opinions. Dembe says that in those cases, her law clerk will work with the delinquent judges’ clerks to get the process moving. But Dembe says Gantman has not told her she needs to worry about Lynn.

No one has contacted Shapiro to explain the delay, either. Which doesn’t seem fair. If Shapiro hadn’t filed her appeal within 30 days, she would have lost the right to appeal. But when a judge doesn’t meet a deadline, nothing happens. Where’s the justice in that? n

Can’t get answers about city services? We can help. Reach us at howl@phillynews.com, 215-854-5855 or on Twitter @phillyhowl. More columns at philly.com/cityhowl.

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