PSU Case Highlights Pa’s Vague Recusal Rules
By Ali Carey, Contributing Writer
A judge’s decision to go easy on former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who is suspected of sexually abusing several minors during and after his tenure at Penn State, has brought Pennsylvania’s vague recusal rules into focus.
District Judge Leslie Dutchcot granted Sandusky a $100,000 unsecured bail, meaning he does not need to pay the full amount unless he fails to show up in court.
In the wake of this disconcerting news, Pennsylvania for Modern Courts (PMC), a nonprofit, nonpartisan court reform organization, is calling for new recusal guidelines and mandatory ethics education for judges.
“Judge Dutchcot should have put this information on the record and given the parties an opportunity to request her recusal from the case. In fact, we believe that recusal would have been the wise decision, but Pennsylvania gives a lot of discretion to judges regarding recusal decisions,” said PMC Executive Director Lynn Marks.
Marks argues that Dutchcot’s connection to Sandusky’s creates a perception of bias surrounding her handling of the case.
PMC Deputy Director Shira Goodman explained, “This case highlights the need for Pennsylvania to revisit the issue of recusal.”
According to PMC, focus has been on recusal since a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case involving a West Virginia justice’s refusal to recuse from a case involving someone who had made major campaign expenditures in support of his election. Although a committee is studying the Judicial Code, Pennsylvania is not among those states that have changed its recusal rules.
PMC agues the Sandusky case is a prime example of how a judge’s pre-existing relationships with parties or witnesses present unique challenges related to recusal.
“Judges need more guidance in making recusal decisions. Pennsylvania can and should provide more tools to judges through mandatory ethics education. Regular educational programs and discussion of ethical challenges will better prepare judges to make the difficult ethical calls that are part of their work,” said Goodman.