HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania's chief justice wants the state Supreme Court to ban lawyers at an organization that currently handles many appeals by convicted murderers on the state's death row.
Chief Justice Ronald Castille took that position in a rare single-justice opinion issued late Wednesday that resolved a number of issues surrounding a decision he wrote three years ago.
In both opinions, Castille took aim at the Philadelphia-based Federal Community Defender Office, writing that the group has engaged in abusive and unethical practices that warrant removing its lawyers from all Pennsylvania cases.
"This court has a responsibility for the entire Pennsylvania judicial system, to ensure the delivery of swift, fair and evenhanded justice in all cases," Castille said. "We are not obliged to indulge or countenance a group which manipulates and abuses the judicial process in Pennsylvania in the hopes of achieving a global political result that it has failed to secure through the political process."
Pennsylvania has 181 men and three women on death row. It has executed three people since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s; all three had relinquished their appeals. The state's last execution was in 1999.
The Federal Community Defender's Office is a division of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which responded forcefully Thursday evening to the justice's criticism. In a statement, association Chairman David Rudovsky and the group's lawyer, David Richman, said the office's defense lawyers have succeeded in obtaining new trials or new sentences for defendants in an extraordinary number of cases.
"With the exception of one or two clients who gave up the right to fight their cases, none of its Pennsylvania state capital clients has ever been put to death," they wrote. "That record by itself refutes any charge that the FCDO engages in frivolous litigation."
Castille described in detail the high court's effort to determine the group's use of federal grant money to finance post-conviction appeals in state courts. The federal money is limited to pursuit of federal habeas corpus claims that cannot begin until state appeals are exhausted, but the organization routinely gets involved in county court proceedings.
Castille said that violates federal law and federal court precedent.
"It insinuates itself into the role of de facto statewide defender in capital cases, claiming to this court that it is acting solely as a privately funded entity which need not answer to any Pennsylvania authority, and then claims, when put to the proof, that it is effectively a 'federal officer' and cannot be asked for an accounting," the chief justice wrote.
He also said the attorneys can overwhelm courts, causing delay after delay.
Three years ago, Castille made similar criticisms in the same case, the murder conviction of Mark Spotz, accused of killing four people in the mid-1990s.
A spokeswoman from the Administrative Office of United States Courts, which apparently provides much of the defender office's funding, declined to comment on Castille's opinion.
The lead prosecutor in the Spotz case said concerns about the group are widespread among district attorneys.
"What it boils down to, for us, is that we certainly advocate zealously and understand zealous advocates on the other side, but we do it within the rules — and it's abundantly clear they don't," said Cumberland County District Attorney Dave Freed.
Marc Bookman, director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, who also represents death penalty defendants in Pennsylvania, said his group and the Federal Community Defender Office both try to give the best possible representation for those facing execution.
"Three justices from Justice Castille's own court labeled the Pennsylvania death penalty in 'disarray' — given these real problems, the amount of time and energy Justice Castille is personally putting into this issue is surprising," Bookman said in an emailed response.
Castille, a Republican and former Philadelphia district attorney, must retire at the end of this year because he turned 70 in March.