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Judges vs. Officers: Respect should be accorded to all

May 1, 2009

You may remember the story well.  Back in February 2009, Officer John Pawlowski joined the unfortunately growing list of Philadelphia Police Department officers who fell in the line of duty.  This time, though, the added twist to the story was what happened at the 35th District police station, where Officer Pawlowski was based. 

Like many other police stations, the 35th District also doubles as a courtroom, used for municipal court preliminary hearings and such.  The reasoning for the use of stations as courtrooms may have its roots in efficiency as well as reduced costs.  Shortly after Office Pawlowski passed away, his fellow officers in the 35th District placed a memorial dedicated to him, along with a picture of him.  This picture was placed on the bench, in plain view of those in the courtroom facing the judge.  The sitting judge in the court, Judge Craig Washington, ordered the photograph to be taken down, but the officers refused.  So, Judge Washington went over and placed the photograph face down himself. His reason was to remove the appearance of bias in having a police officer’s picture up on the bench while court was in session.  Afterwards, officers took down Judge Washington’s parking sign outside the station.  He no longer works at that court room.

Naturally, the action has sparked outrage from the Fraternal Order of Police and other officers, who called the action insulting and disrespectful to a fallen officer.  As you can see from this picture here, it seems that the FOP’s most singular goal now is to remove Judge Washington from office in the November elections.  In its press release on judicial endorsements, the FOP sets forth various candidates it is endorsing and only lists one judge to vote “no” on retention: Judge Washington.  On the other side, President Judge Marsha Neifield rushed to Judge Washington’s defense and, citing Canon 2A of the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct,  stated that photographs are not permitted directly on the bench while court was in session. 

The whole matter does not have an easy answer, and there probably isn’t a right answer either.  Did Judge Washington have technical basis to remove the photograph?  Looking at the letter of the rules, then the answer is yes.  The presence of a photograph of a police officer just a few feet from the judge certainly would, objectively, lead one to conclude that the judge was on the side of police officers instead of the side of justice.  At the same time, doesn’t the presence of these courts in police stations alone lead to an appearance of bias?  How much more potential for bias is really added by the presence of a photograph of an officer in a memorial?

As far as the officers, their position is also understandable in that they lost yet another fellow officer and someone is telling them that they have to take down their memorial in THEIR station.  I did not know Officer Pawlowski but everything I have read about him indicates that he was a good man.  The situation, as Bar Association Chancellor Sayde Ladov noted, could have been handled a lot better.  The photograph could have been moved to another porton of the room, for instance.  At the same time, the officers did not necessarily accord a sitting judge with the necessary respect either.  Directly disobeying the judge’s order and then essentially vandalizing his parking sign are not really the most proper actions of Philadelphia’s finest.  Disagree with, but do not disrespect the judge.

All in all, it remains to be seen what will happen to  Judge Washington come November.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2009 4:00 pm

    This is an informative post

  2. futurephillylawyer permalink
    May 7, 2009 5:38 pm

    I appreciate the even-handedness by John and share the mounting frustration of police officers across the city who have buried colleague after colleague. However, to the FOP’s efforts to openly campaign against Judge Washington are excessive. Both sides should appreciate the role that rules play in the law–some may be bent without consequence–but the appearance of impartiality within the courtroom is not discretionary.

    Shortly after Mayor Nutter selected Everett Gillison as Deputy Mayor of Public Safety, the FOP roundly criticized the decision because Gillison had defended a cop killer. What they didn’t say is that Mr. Gillison had done so as A PUBLIC DEFENDER. That unprincipled stance, coupled with this targeting of Judge Washington gives me little confidence in the FOP political leadership. The police force, by contrast, has been heroic.

    Many legal issues are not black and white. The FOP should recognize this. Now.

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