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10/20/2019 07:42 PM
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/Legis/CSM/showMemoPublic.cfm?chamber=H&SPick=20190&cosponId=28374
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House of Representatives
Session of 2019 - 2020 Regular Session

MEMORANDUM

Posted: February 14, 2019 01:55 PM
From: Representative Eddie Day Pashinski
To: All House members
Subject: Resolution urging the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to update policies for addressing conflicts of interest in family law matters.
 
In an effort to protect all parties involved in family law litigation, I will be introducing a resolution urging the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to update the policies for addressing conflicts of interest that may arise within family law matters involving any judge, including special masters, and to modernize Court guidance on acceptable social media relationships between judges and attorneys or parties before the court.

A judge is obligated to recuse themselves to avoid a conflict of interest or even the appearance of impropriety and are ethically bound to either disqualify themselves or disclose any potential conflict that could be perceived as an appearance of impropriety with any case. However, due to the influence of social media, those conflicts can arise in contexts which have not been anticipated. In one case that was brought to my attention, what began as an undisclosed discovery of a social media relationship between an adjudicator and one of the attorneys appearing before them led to the discovery of a second, even more disturbing appearance of a conflict that was also not disclosed.

Like judges, special masters are subject to the Judicial Code of Conduct. However, allegations of misconduct involving special masters are not investigated by the Judicial Conduct Board. Further, the PA Disciplinary Board will only conduct an investigation into misconduct only if the licensed attorney who serves as the special master is also currently practicing law.

Almost half of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania have adopted the alternative hearing procedure in family law matters and use the services of special masters to conduct evidentiary hearings in Domestic Relations cases. These masters play a vital role because they decide what is made part of the record which is reviewed in any appeal. They also make credibility findings and issue recommendations which are relied upon by trial court judges who are bound to give fullest consider the master’s findings and interim orders. Our Supreme Court needs to insure there are clear guidelines for special masters.

Furthermore, social media and other online venues have revolutionized how people communicate. Policies on judicial ethics must keep pace. Other states have explicitly banned social media connections between judges and a party or attorney who may appear before them, but Pennsylvania’s guidance on the matter remains less defined. It is time the Court studies the effect of social media on issues related to conflicts of interest, and any appearances of impropriety.

There is nothing more important to most of us than family, and our relationships with loved ones. Oddly, though family law judges decisions affect fundamental rights involving family, and though conflicts of interest or appearance of impropriety can develop or be discovered in domestic cases and family law matters at any time and in any number of settings, parties remain handicapped in their ability to raise such issues, in part because of a lack of clean guidance from the court.

By providing stronger policies to remove conflicts of interest or even the appearance of impropriety, the Court can give much needed guidance to judges, and further ensure that all decisions have been made fairly. Particularly in matters involving family, nothing is more important.

As lawmakers, it is our duty to bring awareness to this serious matter and most importantly to protect minor children whose lives can be changed forever based on a judge’s decision and am asking you to please join me in sponsoring this important resolution.

A similar version of this resolution was introduced by the late Representative Florindo “Flo” Fabrizio and included the following sponsors: FABRIZIO, RAVENSTAHL, HARKINS, SCHLOSSBERG, THOMAS, MILLARD, CONKLIN, KIRKLAND, RYAN, BIZZARRO, SCHWEYER, P. COSTA, FLYNN, ROZZI, PASHINSKI, KINSEY, DAVIS, MULLERY, KORTZ, SONNEY, ENGLISH, RABB, DALEY, DeLISSIO and DeLUCA