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I Hate Ivory Towers

“I Hate Ivory Towers”
By William P. Carlucci, Esq.
President, Pennsylvania Bar Association

As the current president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, it is my duty to listen to the concerns of our 27,000 members and to speak on their behalf. I also am called upon occasionally to participate in law-related educational programs and to assist the public in its understanding of how our legal system works to protect the rights of our citizens. One area of particular concern to me is that of judicial independence. I firmly believe that our form of government - three co-equal branches of government working cooperatively for the public good - is central to our way of life. It is for that reason that I write in response to recent news articles that focus on the business expenses of the justices of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.

Until approximately ten years ago, the justices were permitted to claim expenses of up to $25,000 without providing any receipts. In approximately 1994, the justices decided to adopt a new practice requiring vouchers and public records, all in an effort to enhance public trust and accountability. In addition to public records, our Supreme Court justices have adopted a number of other practices designed to keep them in touch with practicing lawyers and with the public in general.

First, the court periodically hears oral arguments in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia. Although that practice requires the justices to travel from their homes and spend nights away from family and friends, it brings the court closer to the citizens of our commonwealth.

Second, justices of the court have been very generous with their time in accepting offers to participate in continuing legal education programs and in presenting speeches to various public groups. By way of example, many of the justices have traveled throughout the commonwealth to offer seminars to practicing attorneys on effective practice before the court. Justice Sandra Newman has delivered speeches from her perspective as the sole female member of the court in an effort to encourage other women to follow her example. When the Pennsylvania Bar Association planned our Midyear Meeting in January of this year at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, several justices agreed to serve as faculty for continuing legal education. The opportunity to listen and learn from Supreme Court justices was a key in permitting our association to provide high quality continuing legal education to our members.

Unfortunately, there is no free lunch (even if the subject is lunch). When justices attend meetings (whether at a local restaurant or at a distant hotel), there is always a cost. No doubt, some members of the public would argue that those costs should not be at public expense. The real danger, however, is not the expense itself. Imagine the editorials that would be written about meals, trips, gifts, and other things of value offered to the justices by private interests. Although no justice would allow their independence to be compromised in such a manner, the appearance of private interests buying influence would severely undermine public trust in our third branch of government.

The other alternative is the Ivory Tower. Without leaving their offices and without spending another lonely night in a hotel room, the justices of our Supreme Court could simply refuse to participate in our democracy. They could refuse to travel, refuse to help educate lawyers, and refuse to meet with and speak to the citizens whose lives are influenced by their decisions. This alternative would cut costs and would make the lives of the justices much easier. It would make the lives of every other citizen much poorer, however, and might lead to a Supreme Court out of touch with those that put them in office.

We all view public office as a public trust, and we all expect our public servants to do their jobs honestly, diligently, and at only reasonable expense. In judging that expense, however, we must consider more than just numbers on a report. When public officials elect to do the absolute minimum that their job requires, they insulate themselves from public scrutiny, but they cheat us all. When officials go the extra mile to help improve the quality of life for all citizens of our commonwealth, they do credit to themselves and to the public that chose them in the first place. Hopefully, we will not always reward their efforts with narrow-minded criticism of an expense report.

William P. Carlucci is the 111th president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and is a shareholder in the Williamsport law firm of Elion, Wayne, Grieco, Carlucci, Shipman and Irwin, P.C. Click here for his photo.