Appeal From Order, Court of Common Pleas Civil Division, Lehigh County, No. 80-C-0455.
John M. Yarema, Emmaus, for appellants.
Michael S. Goodwin, Doylestown, for appellees.
Cirillo, President Judge, and Cavanaugh and Tamilia, JJ.
[ 357 Pa. Super. Page 88]
On December 28, 1979, Carl A. Veno and Carl T. Davies, appellants, were discharged from their employment with a Quakertown, Pennsylvania newspaper, The Free Press. Davies had been a reporter with the newspaper and Veno its managing editor. On December 28, 1979, an article authored by Davies appeared on the front page of the paper which portrayed a Bucks County judge in an unfavorable light.
The article was titled, "Bucks Judge's Business Dealings Questioned." It stated that the Judge "may be vulnerable to violations of conflict of interest prohibitions in the state Code of Judicial Conduct as a result of his business dealings" with a certain "millionaire sportsman and developer."
[ 357 Pa. Super. Page 89]
The article further stated that the Judge is President of a residential development corporation and that his business associate in this project, (the aforementioned "millionaire sportsman and developer"), often "wind[s] up in court" as either a plaintiff or defendant in civil suits. And, that the business associate recently had been involved in a case "initially scheduled to be heard before" the Judge. This, according to the article, "nearly placed the judge in apparent conflict with the state Code of Judicial Conduct." The article continued:
Canon 5 of the code requires that 'a judge should relegate his extra-judicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with his judicial duties.'
According to the canon, 'a judge should refrain from financial and business dealings that tend to reflect adversely on his impartiality, interfere with the proper performance of his judicial duties, exploit his judicial position, or involve him in frequent transactions with lawyers or persons likely to come before the court on which he serves.'
The article states that the judge was spared from having to decide whether to disqualify himself because of a "legal maneuver." And, "[i]f his business relationship with [the developer] continues, [the judge] would appear to be more apt to violate a provision of Canon 5 of the Code of Judicial Conduct prohibiting a judge from financial dealings that would involve him in '. . . frequent transactions with lawyers or persons likely to come before the court on which he serves.'"
Reacting to the article, the newspaper's owner, Charles M. Meredith, III told the editor, Veno, that the articles were unfair to the judge and ordered him to dismiss the author, Davies. When Veno refused, Mr. Meredith himself discharged not only Davies but also Veno.
On December 31, 1979, the Free Press published an editorial by Meredith which apologized to the judge. Under the heading "Our Opinion", this editorial states:
[ 357 Pa. Super. Page 90]
I regret the tone of the articles which appeared in Friday's edition of The Free Press concerning [The Bucks County Judge]. The articles implied that [The Judge] would have a possible conflict of interest if he presided over a case involving his own business associate.
The fact is that [The Judge] did not preside in an appeal involving his business associate. I believe that [The Judge] is an honest man. It is impossible that he would ever put himself in the position of a conflict of interest.
The Friday articles were not thoroughly researched and contained unsupported and indirect charges of conflict of interest. As a result, the writer and editor of this newspaper no longer are affiliated with the Free Press.
My concern in publishing The Free Press transcends producing the best local news coverage. Above that, lie the most important journalistic rules: Fairness and accuracy.
We were unfair in our reporting of the . . . stories [about the Judge] and I apologize publicly to the Judge and to our readers.
The challenge for us remains unchanged. Get the story straight, and be fair. If there is something wrong in our communities, this newspaper will continue to tell the people what the problems are. But the proper research must be made, and both sides of an issue must be fairly presented.
Our job is to publish reports which are accurate and fair. The Free Press' new Editor Gary Andrews and I are committed to this precept.
On January 2, 1980, the new editor of The Free Press wrote the following published editorial: