Magisterial district judge gets one-month, unpaid suspension

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Rita A. Arnold will return to bench Sept. 1, according to state Court of Judicial Discipline

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

Magisterial District Judge Rita A. Arnold will return to the bench on Sept. 1 after a court-ordered month’s suspension.

Choking back tears, Magisterial District Judge Rita A. Arnold pleaded with the state Court of Judicial Discipline to let her keep her “dream” job at a sanctions hearing this afternoon in Harrisburg.

After listening to argument from both sides, an eight-member panel of judges deliberated for about half an hour before issuing its decision: Arnold will receive a month’s suspension without pay but with medical benefits,  effective Aug. 1. It will be followed by two years’ probation.

“I know I screwed up,” Arnold told the judges, vowing to learn from her humiliating mistake.

She said one of the worst days of her life occurred when she was escorted from her court by deputy sheriffs after the complaint was filed against her by the Judicial Conduct Board. Chester County President Judge James P. MacElree III ordered her to leave her office; however, he did not have the authority to suspend her – a power reserved for the Court of Judicial Discipline  – so she has continued to be paid.

President Judge Robert E.J. Curran said the panel “was very impressed” with Arnold’s remorse as well as the five character witnesses presented by her attorney, Heidi F. Eakin. He said the judges were also mindful of Arnold’s family troubles, which did not excuse her conduct.

The decision came a year and a half after investigators began probing allegations that Arnold, a 17-year jurist whose jurisdiction includes Birmingham Township, violated the rules of professional conduct. She was reelected to the position in November.

The Judicial Conduct Board filed a complaint on Feb. 15 that focused on an altercation on Jan. 19, 2010, between Arnold’s son, Forrest “Forrie” C. Solomon Jr., 34, who has a 12-year history of convictions ranging from indecent assault to drug offenses, and his half-brother, Jonathan Arnold, 29, both of whom lived with Rita Arnold.

The complaint said a citation for assault was issued by a state trooper against Solomon but was not recorded for nearly three months. As a result, Solomon’s probation officer could not take any action against him on the new charge because he did not know about it, the complaint said.

Arnold’s office manager testified that the judge told her to “hold onto” the citation until instructed otherwise, to avoid adversely affecting “Solomon’s probationary status.” When troopers questioned Arnold about the fact that the citation had not been docketed, Arnold said “her court was really backlogged,” the complaint said. Later, she blamed the delay on the fact that her office had been relocated and said she had forgotten about it. That explanation contradicted the testimony of a state police supervisor who called to inquire about the citation, said the complaint, which also showed that no other citations were delayed by the move.

Once the citation was docketed on April 5, 2010, Arnold violated procedure again by transferring the case to District Judge Mark Bruno in West Chester without the requisite transfer order from the president judge, the complaint said.
“It is easy to see that from the time the state police citation came into her office,” Arnold engaged in an improper course of conduct, the Court of Judicial Discipline wrote. It said that after she violated procedures, “she made false statements” to investigators and instructed her office manager “to testify falsely,” the opinion said.

Arnold did not contest the facts, an acceptance of responsibility that was noted by James P. Kleman Jr, the attorney who presented the case for the Judicial Conduct Board. Kleman said Arnold’s actions began as “a misplaced sense of maternal duty” but escalated into inexcusable dishonesty. However, he did not seek her ouster.

Kleman said he believed her unblemished record and her acknowledgement of wrongdoing made a public reprimand and censure an appropriate result. After the hearing, he declined to comment on the outcome.

Arnold told the panel that she put her son’s citation aside initially because she was embarrassed, wondering “where I went wrong as a parent when it came to Forrie.” She attributed the fact that he has been  “in and out of rehab”  to his father’s death “at a young age.” Arnold said she never asked to bail him out of jail.

“I know how it was handled was wrong,” she said of her son’s paperwork, adding that she was devastated by the impact her actions had on her family, especially her parents and three other children. “I always wanted my kids to look at me with respect.”

Arnold declined comment on the sanctions, but Eakin said the result was “a fair resolution to a very unfortunate situation.” She added that Arnold was “eager to get back to a job she obviously loves.”

Five character witnesses accompanied Arnold to the proceeding: attorneys Paul J. Rubino and Dawson “Rich” Muth; West Chester Police Lt. James Morris; Mario Spoto, a Downingtown chiropractor; and Robin Whiteman, an Exton real-estate agent.

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