Senior judges booted by courts for filing for unemployment assistance

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has the power to hire and fire its senior judges. That is not debated.

But there are questions after two senior judges were recently booted from the bench. Their crime?

They applied for the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA.

Senior judges are typically former judges who come back to the bench after officially retiring to ease the caseload in an over-burdened judicial system. They are paid $500 a day plus expenses and upon their appointment, to senior status they agree not to do outside legal work.

“Senior judges serve at the pleasure of the court,” said attorney Irwin Aronson, who specializes in labor and employment law.

But there was displeasure among Pa’s Supreme Court Justices with Senior Judges Larry Clark and Jeannine Turgeon over their PUA applications. Five of the seven Justices deemed that PUA filing “inappropriate” and stripped them of their senior status. The court announced the terminations in a one paragraph statement that didn’t specifically name Clark and Turgeon.

“They didn’t cite to any violation of any rule at all, none, zero” said Aronson, who represented both judges.

Aronson insists that because of the virus forced the courts to close and the judges couldn’t work or get paid they met the eligibility requirements for the $600 a week PUA. In fact, he gave them the green light to apply for the federal benefits.

They checked with him first?

“That’s correct,” Aronson responded

So Aronson,  not the judges, should be blamed?

“Absolutely,” Aronson said, “totally and exclusively.”

But critics, and there are many, don’t buy that argument.

“The core characteristic you want in a judge is good judgement,” said Eric Epstein of the state watchdog group Rock the Capital. “This is awful judgement.”

Epstein notes that Clark gets a monthly pension of $6,947.64. Turgeon’s monthly pension pays here $10,409.31.

ABC27 has also gathered their compensation as senior judges. In five years on the senior circuit, Judge Clark earned $436,641.20 in Per Diems, expenses and mileage.

Turgeon, in just over one year as a senior judge, collected in $50,952.42 in Per Diems, expenses and mileage.

“The appearance here is of greed,” Epstein said. “Self-indulgence and putting yourself above the needs of the regular working guy. That money (PUA) was for folks that are struggling. These guys (Clark and Turgeon) are not struggling.”

But they are now struggling in the court of public opinion, though they broke no law and violated no policy.

“What I would like to see happen is their status as senior judges be restored,” Aronson said.

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