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FINK v. SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA

January 16, 1987

HAROLD B. FINK, President Judge, Fifty-Fifth Judicial District, Potter County , and PEOPLE FOR JUSTICE, Plaintiffs
v.
SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA, N. C. NIX, JR., Chief Justice of Pa., JUDICIAL INQUIRY AND REVIEW BOARD OF THE SUPREME COURT OF PA., HONORABLE JAMES E. ROWLEY, Chairman of the Judicial Inquiry and Review Board; ROBERT KEUCH, Executive Director of Judicial Inquiry and Review Board; ROBERT L. POTTER, ESQUIRE, Special Prosecutor of the Pennsylvania Judicial Inquiry and Review Board, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MUIR

 I. Introduction.

 This case is on our January 1987 trial list for purposes of Plaintiffs' application for a preliminary injunction. On October 29, 1986, the Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. A supporting brief was filed on November 12, 1986. A brief in opposition was filed December 8, 1986. No reply brief has been filed. This matter is now ripe for our consideration.

 This is a civil rights action brought by Common Pleas Judge Harold B. Fink and a group of citizens denominated as the People for Justice. The Defendants are the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the Judicial Inquiry and Review Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (hereafter Board), the Chairman of the Board, the Executive Director of the Board and the Special Prosecutor of the Board. The complaint which requests injunctive relief was filed on October 7, 1986.

 An order of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania of July 29, 1986, reads in its entirety: "ORDERED, That HAROLD B. FINK, President Judge, Fifty-fifth Judicial District, Potter County, be and hereby is assigned to perform administrative and non-decisional judicial duties until further Order of the Court." No reasons, background or authority are set forth in this cryptic document. The reassignment is in essence a suspension from performing judicial duties. Judge Fink is currently allowed to handle only a few ministerial functions. The suspension is of an indeterminate nature. Judge Fink and the People for Justice have sued to restore Judge Fink to his former status.

 The complaint alleges that the order of July 29, 1986 was issued in contravention of Article V §§ 10 & 18 of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1968 and in violation of the due process clause of the Constitution of the United States. Judge Fink and the People for Justice allege that the order removing Judge Fink was neither preceded by nor followed by a proper hearing. The order allegedly was not made after a recommendation by the Board pursuant to the Board's own rule 16. The Plaintiffs allege that the formal Board proceedings to date have consisted of only one hearing on October 15, 1986. The Defendants allege that they have fully complied with the requirements of the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions and have therefore filed the motion to dismiss which is the subject of this opinion.

 In considering a motion to dismiss, we must liberally construe the complaint and view it in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs. Conley vs. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80, 78 S. Ct. 99 (1957). The factual allegations contained in the complaint and every inference fairly deducible therefrom must be accepted as true. United States vs. Mississippi, 380 U.S. 128, 13 L. Ed. 2d 717, 85 S. Ct. 808 (1965). Furthermore, we may not dismiss at the pleading stage a civil rights action unless it appears beyond doubt that the Plaintiffs can prove no set of facts in support of their claim which would entitle them to relief. Conley vs. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80, 78 S. Ct. 99 (1957); Scher vs. Board of Education, 424 F.2d 741, 744 (3d Cir. 1970). Applying these principles to the complaint we address the grounds upon which the Defendants base their motion.

 II. The Abstention Doctrines.

 The Defendants argue that precedent requires this Court to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over this suit. Defendants contend that the primary purpose of the Plaintiffs' lawsuit is to obtain injunctive relief against an arm of the state and therefore the abstention doctrines enunciated in the cases of Burford vs. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 87 L. Ed. 1424, 63 S. Ct. 1098 (1943), Railroad Comm. of Texas vs. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 85 L. Ed. 971, 61 S. Ct. 643 (1941), and Younger vs. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 27 L. Ed. 2d 669, 91 S. Ct. 746 (1971) apply. We shall discuss the applicability of each of these cases seriatim.

 A. Burford abstention.

 In Burford vs. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 87 L. Ed. 1424, 63 S. Ct. 1098 (1942), Sun Oil Company brought suit in the United States District Court against the Texas Railroad Commission to enjoin it from permitting Burford to operate oil wells in the East Texas Oil Field. Jurisdiction was based on diversity of citizenship and denial of due process. The issue was whether the district court should have declined to exercise jurisdiction as a matter of equitable discretion. The production of oil in Texas was governed by a comprehensive and complicated regulatory system structured to conserve oil. Texas was concerned with the impact of the oil industry on the entire economy of the state. Texas had established a system of thorough judicial review of administrative decisions. To secure uniformity of interpretation and to prevent confusion by multiple review the Texas legislature provided for the concentration of all direct review of the Texas Railroad Commission's orders in the Texas District Court of Travis County. That Court had the responsibility of coordinating with the Commission in regulating the oil industry.

 The Burford Court held that the United States District Court should have dismissed the complaint on the ground that the issues involved specialized knowledge of state policy and a complex regulatory system. Because the regulations surrounding the oil industry involved basic problems of state policy the Burford Court concluded that federal intervention would cause conflicts of interpretation of state law and under such circumstances a sound respect for the independence of state action required that the federal court stay its hand. Burford, 319 U.S. at 334. Nonetheless, when the administrative agency has no more expertise in the area drawn into question than does the federal court, Burford abstention is not applicable. Baltimore Bank for Cooperatives vs. Farmers Cheese Cooperative, 583 F.2d 104, 108 (3d Cir. 1978). Burford abstention also does not apply to cases based on federal rather than state constitutional rights. Harris vs. Pernsley, 755 F.2d 338, 344 (3d Cir. 1985).

 The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1968 prescribes an exact scheme for the investigation and discipline of judges. It is the Plaintiffs' contention that the order of July 29, 1986 was issued outside of the procedures outlined in the Constitution of 1968, Article V, §§ 10 & 18 and in violation of the United States Constitution. The Plaintiffs do not ask that we interpret Pennsylvania law. Instead, they base their claims on federal due process rights. The Plaintiffs' suit is not likely to involve technical issues that are more readily understood by the Board than by us. A final ruling by this Court regarding the Plaintiffs' constitutional claims should not result in inconsistent decisions regarding the regulatory system for disciplining judges. Indeed, if the Board's procedures are inconsistent with the mandate of the United States Constitution, then those procedures must be changed. Thus, because no challenge is made to the policies or regulations of the Board and because the Board probably has no greater expertise in this area than the Court, Burford abstention is inapplicable.

 In Pullman, the Supreme Court enunciated the policy that where a state proceeding can obviate the need to reach a federal constitutional question, it is appropriate for a federal court to abstain pending the outcome of state proceedings. Defendants argue that state proceedings can result in the vindication of Judge Fink and that it is therefore proper for this Court ...


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