West Chester magisterial district judge says high court violated his rights
Updated at 4:45 p.m. to add quote from Samuel C. Stretton
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
A suspended Chester County magisterial district judge implicated in the alleged Philadelphia Traffic Court ticket-fixing case wants his paycheck returned.
West Chester Magisterial District Judge Mark A. Bruno filed a federal lawsuit Thursday, accusing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court of violating his constitutional rights by suspending him without pay on Feb. 1, a day after he was indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The suit, filed by West Chester attorney Samuel C. Stretton, said the high court’s action occurred with no opportunity for Bruno, whose term expires in January 2018, “to respond or have an adjudicatory hearing.“ The suit seeks an injunction from U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody to declare the suspension illegal and reinstate Bruno’s pay, pending the outcome of the criminal case.
Twelve defendants, including Bruno and eight other judges, were indicted Jan. 31, accused of participating in a scheme in which Philadelphia ward leaders, local politicians, and associates of the Democratic City Committee regularly contacted them seeking preferential treatment on specific traffic tickets. These defendants accepted these requests and either gave the preferential treatment directly or communicated the request to another judge to whom the case was assigned, the indictment said.
The indictment said Bruno, 50, who could receive up to 60 years in prison, requested assistance from former Senior Traffic Court Judge Fortunato N. Perri Sr. to fix a ticket for “J.M” in January 2011. During a Jan. 14, 2011, phone call, Perri, one of three judges who have pleaded guilty in the case, took credit for “putting” Bruno in Traffic Court, the indictment said. Bruno’s suit said he worked four or five days a year in Traffic Court while other judges were away on training.
The suit called Bruno “well respected by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,” having been appointed the chair of its Minor Court Rules Committee, where he served for six years. The high court’s action has deprived Bruno “of his ability to support his family,” the suit said. Calling Bruno’s caseload “the highest volume” of any magisterial district judge in Chester County, the suit said “there were never any complaints about his judicial conduct.”
Stretton said “it’s a sad day” when the high court doesn’t follow the law. “There’s never been a hearing finding him guilty of anything,” said Stretton of his client. “In the meantime, he’s presumed innocent. It’s pretty clear to me they [the court] acted wrongly.”
Attorney Vincent P. DiFabio, who is representing Bruno in the criminal case, has said he planned to “vigorously defend” Bruno against the charges.
Even if Bruno prevails in getting his suspension reversed, it is unlikely that he would resume working since Chester County President Judge James P. MacElree II stripped him of his duties after the indictment was filed – an action that represents the extent of MacElree’s authority.
In February 2012, MacElree issued a similar order to Magisterial District Judge Rita A. Arnold, who was accused of improperly handling a 2010 citation issued to her son, Forrest ”Forrie” C. Solomon Jr. In June, the state Court of Judicial Discipline concluded that Arnold violated the rules of professional conduct; a month later, an eight-member panel of the court, citing Arnold’s remorse, suspended her for a month without pay followed by two years’ probation. Arnold, who was paid during her time out of the office, returned to the bench on Sept. 1.