A long day's journey into justice

Posted: May 23, 2014

IN WHAT could be described as a low-speed chase, former Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Willis W. Berry Jr., 71, was arrested yesterday and charged with abusing his office to run his private business affairs while on the bench in the 1990s and 2000s.

The arrest of the retired judge came seven long years after news reports first tagged him as a slumlord running rental properties out of his judicial chambers, and five years after he was suspended over the alleged misconduct.

But although the initial judicial-ethics complaint against Berry was lodged in 2007, Attorney General Kathleen Kane, in announcing the criminal charges, said the matter was not referred to her office until July, prompting an independent probe.

Kane said yesterday that her office's investigation found that Berry relied on his taxpayer-funded secretary to help him manage the dilapidated properties, collect rent, and even attend landlord-tenant court hearings.

Berry turned himself in yesterday to face one felony count each of theft of services and conflict of interest.

At least one activist was heartened by the turn of events.

"The power of the robe comes with great responsibility," said Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonpartisan reform group. "When that power is abused, the abuse should be dealt with harshly. Even judges - indeed, especially judges - cannot be above the law."

But Berry's lawyer, Samuel Stretton, questioned why it took so long to bring the charges when the case was taken up by the state Court of Judicial Discipline back in 2009.

"It's outrageous," he said.

This has not been a good year for Berry, who left the bench in 2012. Earlier, his law license was suspended because of a civil fraud verdict related to other real estate dealings.

- Associated Press

contributed to this report.

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: ph.ly/Attytood.com

comments powered by Disqus