"What's black and white and read all over?"

Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Posted 11:12 PM by

Pa. judges want double standard for themselves

The judges want off the publicly-viewable property tax rolls, citing the case of a federal judge whose husband and mother were killed last year. But she blames the slayings more on the inflamatory rhetoric of Pat Robertson and Congressmen, than the availability of public information online.

Beaver County President Judge Robert Kunselman ordered his name and those of other judges off the county tax rolls last month, claiming it was a security risk. The commissioners are appealing to Commonwealth Court.Beaver County's commissioners have appealed a judge's order stripping his name and those of other judges from all public records in the county's assessment office - including its online property tax database.

County President Judge Robert Kunselman ordered the records removal on April 24, citing safety concerns following attacks on two U.S. judges last year. He said he issued the bench order after the county commissioners ignored his request last summer to have the records removed.

However, Myron Sainovich, the county's solicitor, couldn't find any state law to support the judge's order. "You control your county assessor," Sainovich told the commissioners on April 26. "It's my belief he doesn't have the authority."

Kunselman insists he does, saying "I'm my own authority as far as I'm concerned. If they want to do something about it, they can do something."

On Tuesday, the commisioners did. Sainovich filed the appeal in Commonwealth Court, the Beaver County Times reported today.

Commissioners Chairman Dan Donatella said the appeal protects the county's rights while officials try to resolve the matter. "We have no choice but to do that."

It was the right move, even though Allegheny County similarly removed 100 property records - the names of all federal, state and county judges - from its online database last year following a request from Chief U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose.

But that order covered only the Web site and was issued by Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, who has the power to order it - not a county judge, Sainovich said.

Under Allegheny County's new policy, judges' property records are still available by request at the county property assessment office. But that didn't stop first ammendment advocates and even other county officials from criticizing the move.

"I think it's a slippery slope," former county Chief Executive Jim Roddey, who approved the policy of listing names and addresses along with real estate information on the Web site, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "You start with the judges, and then why not take off the police, FBI agents" or other groups?

Roddey said there was no indication that the recent violence against judges was related to public records containing their addresses.

As proof they're in danger, Kunselman and Ambrose have cited the murder of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes near Atlanta and the slayings of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow's husband and mother at her Chicago home.

However, Barnes was shot on March 11, 2005 in his own courtroom. Brian Nichols, 33, a jailed defendant in a rape trial, allegedly overpowered his escort into court and used the guard's gun to fatally shoot Barnes, a sheriff's deputy and a federal agent.

Lefkow's case is more complex.

Although white supremacists were targeting her, U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lefkow's husband and mother were actually killed a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case she dismissed. He found her home using a GPS device.She found her husband and mother shot dead in the basement of her home on Feb. 28, 2005, less than a year after white supremacist Matthew Hale was convicted of trying to have her murdered for holding him in contempt of court, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Security at Lefkow's home - including a camera mounted outside the home and guards posted on the block in unmarked cars - had been beefed up after the allegations against Hale emerged in January 2003. But neighbors said the extra measures tailed off about the time Hale was convicted in April 2004.

After the killings, New Jersey-based Hal Turner, who conducts a daily broadcast of fiercely anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish and anti-federal commentary via short-wave radio and the Internet, blamed three other judges he called "the real villains" in the Hale case and asked his followers for "Home addresses. Background and biographical info. Photos. Voting records, property ownership records. Info. about any skeletons in their closets. You know, the whole nine-yards. The full monty."

Lefkow's home address had been posted on the Internet by a member of Hale's group. However, it wasn't a white supremacist who killed Lefkow's family members.

Bart Ross, a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case Lefkow dismissed, admitted to the murders in a suicide note before shooting himself in the head.

Police later found a global positioning system (GPS) device, which Ross used to locate Lefkow's home, in his van.

On May 18, 2005, Lefkow testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, "I urge your support for legislation that prohibits the posting of personal information about judges and other public officials on the Internet without written consent."

However, she also noted, "As a matter of fact, our home address was posted by the state board of elections in connection with my husband's candidacy for a local judgeship. A small fee of $20 will give anyone who wants it access to social security numbers, loans, land transactions, the names of neighbors, and so forth. Although it may never be stopped entirely, limits on commercial trafficking in such information is, I believe, feasible and essential."

Those comments were more of a sidebar, though.

They were wedged in between her request for $12 million more federal funding to protect judges, and her urging senators to "publicly and persistently repudiate gratuitous attacks on the judiciary such as the recent statement of Pat Robertson on national television and, unfortunately, of some members of the Congress, albeit in more measured terms."

Nevertheless, judges like Kunselman, Ambrose and others across the nation have seized on only that one portion of Lefkow's words and used them as leverage to get their names removed from public records.

The Chicago Election Board has reportedly drafted a measure to protect the voter registration records of the Illinois' judges and let them vote by absentee ballot - similar to a 2000 law that allows victims of domestic violence to enroll in an address confidentiality program.

There's also a bill in the Illinois Legislature that would let judges carry concealed weapons.

A bill in the Idaho state Legislature was introduced in February to "exempt judges' addresses, telephone numbers and other information concerning their residences from public disclosure. It would continue to permit access to county recorders' records by those having a professional need to view such documents, including title insurers and escrow agents, and would also allow persons who are parties to instruments to have access to those instruments."

No similar measure is pending in Pennsylvania's Legislature. However, the state Supreme Court heard testimony two weeks ago on a proposal to cloak the names of jurors.

Delaware officials asked a federal appeals court two weeks ago to let them keep public records beyond the reach of nonresidents.

None of this would have helped William Berkeyheiser, of Upper Makefield, Bucks County, who was shot to death in March 2005 by Stanford Douglas Jr., 30, of Philadelphia.

The mentally ill admitted killer said he was angry with Berkeyheiser over a joke the older man supposedly told in his presence in 1998 while they were co-workers. He refused to tell police the joke, but did say that he tracked Berkeyheiser with information he obtained by paying $150 to A-Plus Investigations of Burlington, N.J. He tried other private investigation firms, but begged off when they started asking why he wanted the information.

Viola Berkeyheiser, the victim's widow, is now suing the private investigation firm in Bucks County court for "aiding and abetting" her husband's murderer. Leaders in the PI industry from as far away as Las Vegas have read stories about the lawsuit and are so outraged by A-Plus's conduct that they have called her lawyer and volunteered their services.

One final note. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, cited Lefkow's comments in his opening statement at the nomination hearing for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on Sept. 13.

If the public records of judges are removed, why not the police or politicians?"Judge Lefkow said that the murders of her family members were 'a direct result of a decision made in the course of fulfilling our duty to do justice without fear or favor,' Durbin said. "In my view, that is the only proper test for a Supreme Court Justice."

Or any judge.
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