Pa. Supreme Court rebukes new Phila. judge

Common Pleas Court Judge Scott DiClaudio leaves the Supreme Court's courtroom.
Common Pleas Court Judge Scott DiClaudio leaves the Supreme Court's courtroom. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 11, 2016

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court meted out a harsh public rebuke Wednesday of a newly elected Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge, citing "serial misconduct" in his previous work as criminal defense lawyer.

Scott DiClaudio, who was sworn in as a judge in January, stood silently before the six justices while he endured a scolding that lasted fewer than five minutes but was searing nonetheless.

"This court will not tolerate serial misconduct," Justice Debra McCloskey Todd said during a morning court session in City Hall. "Any future misconduct will result in prompt and considerable punishment."

Todd, speaking for the court and curtly beginning with "Mr. DiClaudio," noted that this was not the first time that the Supreme Court had chastised him for mishandling a criminal case on behalf of a client and violating legal ethics rules.

In fact, Wednesday's public censure marked the fourth time since 2003 that DiClaudio has been disciplined for shoddy legal work.

DiClaudio, who did not speak during the proceeding, declined to comment as he exited the court.

"You know I have a new job, so I can't give quotes. I'm sorry," said DiClaudio, who now hears criminal cases and has an annual salary of $176,572.

DiClaudio, 51, won a seat on the bench in the 2015 election despite getting a "not recommended" rating from the Philadelphia Bar Association. His victory was all but assured by a top ballot spot and an endorsement by the Democratic City Committee, headed by U.S. Rep. Robert Brady.

Brady on Wednesday afternoon lamented that the committee had endorsed DiClaudio after District Attorney Seth Williams vouched for him, touting him as a "good guy."

"That's why we supported him. That's why we did it. [Williams] actually came in and he spoke on his behalf. Now he's on the bench. I don't know," Brady said, sighing.

Williams, according to Brady, told committee leaders that DiClaudio had one "minor" infraction with the disciplinary board. "Seth said [DiClaudio] took care of it and he made restitution," Brady recalled.

Brady said he was surprised to learn about the public censure. If DiClaudio gets in trouble again, the justices "should take him off the bench," he said.

Williams and DiClaudio have been friends since they attended Central High School. Williams spoke at DiClaudio's swearing-in ceremony in January.

On Wednesday, Williams affirmed his support for DiClaudio in a statement: "I strongly support Judge Scott DiClaudio and we have been friends for years. I have watched him in professional and personal settings, and I know he provided top-notch legal services for many clients who often could not pay him. His parents ran a corner store in South Philly and he never forgot his roots."

A public censure by the Supreme Court is relatively rare. From 1973 through 2014, the high court handed down 124 public censures, with zero in 2014, according to court statistics.

Leading up to the censure, DiClaudio acknowledged wrongdoing in a joint petition filed with the disciplinary board last fall. But the petition, in which DiClaudio agreed to a public sanction, was made public after the election, in December 2015.

The censure stems from DiClaudio's representation of Ahmed Khalil, who pleaded guilty for possession of a firearm without a license in 2007 and was sentenced to four years' probation. In 2011, Khalil was sent to prison for violating his probation.

DiClaudio filed an appeal of the probation violation on Khalil's behalf, but then failed to file required paperwork related to the appeal. Superior Court dismissed the appeal and DiClaudio didn't tell Khalil about the dismissal.

In her dress-down of DiClaudio, Todd said he not only neglected his client, but "abandoned" him, forcing the court to appoint a new lawyer to represent Khalil.

Khalil on Wednesday blamed DiClaudio for time he spent in prison.

"I basically went to jail for going on vacation," Khalil said. "He never showed up to court after I paid him. I feel bad for him and his family, but still, he wasn't a straight guy. He messed up a lot of things."

Khalil said he paid DiClaudio about $5,750 to represent him on the weapons charge and the appeal. DiClaudio eventually returned $750 to him, Khalil said.

Khalil said he did not believe a public censure went far enough. "How did he get in trouble? He's still a judge," he said.

Jim Schwartzman, a former chair of the disciplinary board and a lawyer who specializes in ethics and professional responsibility, said DiClaudio's public censure "would have been a potential much bigger deal if he was still practicing law." Schwartzman, speaking generally, said other lawyers would likely seize upon the censure to wave would-be clients away from DiClaudio and hurt his practice. As a judge, DiClaudio doesn't have to worry about losing clients, he noted.

Schwartzman said he did not know the specifics of the disciplinary cases against DiClaudio, but "four is a lot, I will say that."

The state Disciplinary Board "informally admonished" DiClaudio in 2003 for failure to properly file a criminal appeal.

He was informally admonished a second time in 2008 for failing to provide a client with a written fee agreement and for "making false statements."

And in April 2011, the Supreme Court placed DiClaudio on one-year probation for bungling another client's appeal. The court also ordered "monitoring" of his legal practice. DiClaudio faced $3,273 in fines for expenses incurred during the board's investigation.

DiClaudio "has had past opportunities to address inconsistencies in his practice and has fallen short," the Office of Disciplinary Counsel wrote in that case. "It is our sincere hope that he will recognize the seriousness of his situation and take immediate action."

DiClaudio was on probation when he dropped the ball on Khalil's appeal.

rudermw@phillynews.com215-854-5924@wendyruderman

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