Superior Court puts Rita A. Arnold’s state jail sentence on hold
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
An embattled former Chester County magisterial district judge got a Christmas Eve reprieve from the Superior Court, which stayed her state prison term and ordered her sentencing judge to explain why he increased her bail tenfold earlier this month.
Instead of reporting to jail on Friday, Dec. 27, Rita A. Arnold received chemotherapy for an aggressive form of breast cancer, said her attorney, Heidi F. Eakin. “If there’s ever a time for compassion, it’s now,” said Eakin, stating that Arnold’s primary battle is not with the courts, but “for her life.”
Eakin filed an emergency petition for review on Dec. 19, two days after Senior Judge John L. Braxton declined to reduce the state prison term of 16 to 32 months he imposed in October. Braxton, who had set cash bail of $100,000 at the time of sentencing, refused defense attorney Heidi F. Eakin’s request to continue it pending further appeal. He said he did not believe an appeal would succeed since the sentence was lawful and no errors occurred; then he said Arnold could remain free if $1 million were posted.
The increase prompted Eakin’s petition, which generated a Dec. 24 response from the Superior Court. “The trial court is directed to file an opinion stating the reasons for increasing bail pending appeal, from $100,000 to $1,000,000,” the order said, giving Braxton 21 days to respond and staying the Oct. 15 sentence. Braxton, a visiting judge who was assigned to the case after Eakin requested an out-of-county jurist, could not be reached for comment.
Eakin said she was pleased with the Superior Court’s decision, which came as a great relief to Arnold and her family. Eakin said bail is supposed to guarantee a defendant’s appearance, not be punitive. Arnold, who surrendered her passport, is no flight risk, Eakin said, pointing out that Arnold made her last court appearance despite being obviously weakened by chemotherapy. “She lost weight, she lost her hair, and she was still there,” Eakin said.
During the sentencing hearing, Braxton stressed that Arnold’s conduct undermined the entire judicial system. Arnold, who once served as magisterial district judge for the Downingtown region, pleaded guilty in June to obstruction of justice and tampering with public records. According to court records, she concealed a summary citation state police issued to one of her sons in January 2010 to protect him from a probation violation.
After repeated questions over a couple of months from police about the docketing delay, Arnold lied about its status, and then, without the required approval of Chester County President Judge James P. MacElree II, improperly docketed the citation and ordered an employee to transfer it to another court, where it was dismissed, court records said.
Both Braxton and Senior Deputy Attorney General Susan L. DiGiacomo pointed out that once the wrongdoing was discovered, Arnold, who spent 19 years on the bench, had multiple opportunities to admit her misconduct but failed to do so. Instead, Braxton pointed out that she “concocted” three different versions of events to try and conceal her guilt and asked her office manager to lie for her, which the longtime employee refused to do.
In fashioning the sentence, Braxton said he felt Arnold’s most egregious conduct occurred after the Court of Judicial Discipline imposed a month’s unpaid suspension in July 2012 at a sanctions hearing. As soon as Arnold returned to her post, she retaliated against the office manager by writing a letter to the president judge seeking the woman’s ouster because she had been “unwilling to lie in her behalf,” said the judge.
Braxton said the incident highlighted Arnold’s lack of remorse. Arnold has countered that she just wanted her longtime employee transferred, not fired. On Dec. 17, Braxton asked Arnold to explain the reason for the request, but Arnold did not respond.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s case against Arnold surfaced in April, eight months after the Court of Judicial Discipline returned Arnold to her elected post. Arnold resigned shortly after state agents from the Attorney General’s Office arrested her for the same offenses that had prompted the minor reprimand from the judicial panel in Harrisburg.
Eakin said in decades of practicing law, “this case has twisted and turned more than any other.”