A Philadelphia Judge’s Defense: ‘Stupidity’

Mario F. Cattabiani and Nancy Phillips, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 14, 2009

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Willis W. Berry demonstrated “stupidity” by running a real estate business out of his chambers, but it did not rise to the level that the state should strip him of his robe, his attorney argued yesterday.

“This is something I put in the area of stupidity,” lawyer Samuel C. Stretton told eight judges on the state Court of Judicial Discipline who will soon decide whether Berry will remain on the bench. “I don’t see this as the kind of intentional misconduct.”

At issue at the hearing was whether Berry’s actions brought the office into “disrepute”–a violation Stretton equated to the “death penalty” for judges, since it could lead to dismissal and loss of a pension.

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As Berry was waging an unsuccessful bid for the state Supreme Court in 2007, the newspaper reported that he used his official court address and phone at the Criminal Justice Center to advertise apartment vacancies and had his secretary collect rent, handle correspondence with tenants, and attend hearings in landlord-tenant court during the workday.

Berry, who moonlights as a landlord, owns a host of run-down rental properties that have repeatedly been cited for violations of city codes. Tenants and neighbors have complained of deplorable conditions, including rodent infestation, faulty wiring, and weed-choked lots.

From 1995 to August 2007, the city Department of Licenses and Inspections issued Berry more than 70 citations for safety and code violations at his properties. In one case, the city seized a four-story building on the 1400 block of Poplar Street after finding it was “imminently dangerous.”

In its complaint, the Judicial Conduct Board said Berry’s repeated violations of building and safety codes alone were “so extreme as to bring the judicial office into disrepute.”

The use of his judicial office for personal business was similarly inappropriate, the board said, and that, too, brought disrepute to the judiciary.

“How does it look when a man elected to enforce the law cannot himself abide by the law?” asked Daniel T. Reimer, the board’s assistant counsel, who argued the matter yesterday. “What kind of message does that send?”

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At no point, Stretton told the judges, has anyone suggested that the real estate business interfered with Berry’s judicial duties.

“He is a hardworking judge,” he said.

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[Editor’s Note: An earlier story about Judge Berry and his real-estate business can be read here.]

judge

Real-estate magnate Judge Willis W. Berry.

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