Court should restore paper trail in Tierney case
May 14, 2009
Lackawanna County's courts apparently have no record of a proceeding that has become a matter of interest in a local judicial election.
That is not particularly reassuring at a time when public confidence in courts, generally, has been badly shaken by flagrant judicial corruption in Luzerne County.
Nor is it particularly reassuring that Lackawanna County President Judge Chester Harhut told Erin Nissley of The Times-Tribune that he rarely scrutinizes orders that he signs while presiding over motion court.
Such documents often pertain to routine procedural matters. And in most cases the lawyer seeking the motion describes the contents before actually presenting a prepared order for a judge's signature. So the judge knew what he was signing when he signed it. But the judge now says he cannot recall exactly what the document stated, and there is no public record for reference.
Judicial orders, even on mundane matters, clearly should be a matter of public record for the sake of historical accuracy, if nothing else. The case at issue demonstrates that such orders later can become matters of public interest.
The order in question was for the assignment of a neutral arbitrator. James Tierney, a local lawyer now seeking judicial nominations, was injured in a 2005 bus accident. He sued his own insurer under a process that is used when one of the parties to an accident is uninsured or under-insured. Mr. Tierney and his wife eventually were awarded between $2 million and $3 million.
Judge Harhut, during motion court, issued an order assigning attorney Larry Moran as the neutral arbitrator. Mr. Tierney is a former law clerk of Judge Harhut, who is a godfather of one of Mr. Tierney's sons. Mr. Moran's son now is Mr. Tierney's campaign coordinator.
Judge Harhut said he did not disclose his ties to Mr. Tierney before appointing the arbitrator because he did not learn until later that Mr. Tierney was the plaintiff. Because the order is not available as a public record, there is no way to know whether it identifies Mr. Tierney as the plaintiff.
Arbitration cases typically are not considered matters of public record, but this indicates that, perhaps, they should be.
Meanwhile, Judge Harhut acknowledged reports that the FBI is looking into underinsured and uninsured motorist cases in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, and declined to discuss the matter in detail.
It's not clear why the order was not filed. It should not require an FBI inquiry for the local court to find out why, and to have the parties produce it for public scrutiny.
On the day county commissioners honored him for his work as president judge, Lackawanna County Judge Chester T. Harhut said he could decide as early as today that he is taking senior status.
Senior judges are allowed to work only part time, meaning the county bench would have an opening for a full-time judge that could be filled in the upcoming election.
Judge Harhut said he will probably announce his decision this morning after discussing the matter with his family.
The judge, first appointed to the county bench by Gov. Robert Casey on April 30, 1987, will turn 70 years old in February 2012, and 70 is when all judges must step down from full-time duty. That means he is only a year away from when he could assume senior status.
But Judge Harhut said he fears the county could lose a judgeship if he waits until next year because the state Supreme Court is looking to eliminate judgeships to save money. Announcing earlier would allow the election to replace him to proceed, he said.
"I've been playing with the idea of retirement in my mind for years," Judge Harhut said.
He stepped down as president judge on Jan. 1 after serving in that post since October 2000.
He spoke about taking senior status just after attending what the commissioners billed to him as "a very important meeting."
After he arrived, he learned they wanted to honor him with a proclamation. The proclamation declared Wednesday, Jan. 26, "The Honorable Chester T. Harhut Day" in Lackawanna County for his service in running the county court system.
Reading from the proclamation, Commissioner Mike Washo said Judge Harhut had, as Family Court judge, spearheaded efforts to integrate mental health and drug and alcohol treatment into family disputes, developed the STARS anti-truancy program, helped develop a guidebook to help family court judges deal with abused and neglected children and their families and became "one of the state's foremost proponents of resolving family conflict through alternative dispute resolution."
"When I look at what you've accomplished, I say to myself it's truly remarkable what a person could do after entering a whole new phase of their life after having a very successful legal practice," Mr. Washo said.
Commissioner A.J. Munchak said the judge came to him and former Commissioner Robert C. Cordaro asking for a chance to implement ideas aimed at upgrading county Children and Youth Services.
"And we just gave him full rein on that, and it's developed into one of the premier services for children and youth throughout the state," Mr. Munchak said.
Commissioner Corey O'Brien, whose late uncle Joseph was a close friend of the judge, said the judge is "nationally recognized with respect to specialty courts as an absolute expert." The judge's innovations are becoming a model across the state, he said.
"What you've done is transform the justice system across Pennsylvania," Mr. O'Brien said.
The judge said he appreciated the "over-flattering and unnecessary and just overly generous comments."
He deflected credit to others inside and outside the court system.
"I'll say this as a basic nugget: We all had to work together. It just doesn't happen with one person doing one thing. It takes a community," he said.
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