The Legal Intelligencer by Zack Needles July 1, 2009
On the evening of Nov. 20, 2007, according to the board's complaint, Lower Southampton police officers responded to an anonymous phone complaint of an underage drinking party at McEwen's home in Feasterville, Pa. When the police arrived at the home, McEwen's grandson, Matthew Keller, answered and the police told him to get his grandmother, the complaint said.
When McEwen came to the door she appeared to have just awakened and said that she did not know about the underage drinking party in her home because she had been asleep, according to the complaint. McEwen then allowed the officers to enter her home and they cited 10 people, including Keller, for underage drinking, the complaint said. David W. Heckler, the county's president judge at the time, assigned all 10 cases to Magisterial District Judge Donald Nasshorn, of Magisterial District 07-2-07, the complaint said. On Jan. 9, 2008, according to the complaint, all of the defendants appeared before Nasshorn with their parents, except Keller, who was absent from the proceedings. Nasshorn found all 10 defendants guilty, the cases were adjudicated and the original files and paperwork were returned to McEwen's court, the complaint said. Keller was found guilty in absentia and was assessed a $300 fine plus $121.41 for court costs, according to the complaint. The complaint said that a payment determination hearing for Keller was scheduled for Feb. 26, 2008. On that date, the complaint said, McEwen brought Keller to her court offices and asked her acting court clerk administrator for her grandson's file so that she could reduce his fine. The administrator told McEwen that Keller's case belonged to Nasshorn, to which McEwen responded, "This is a case in my court," according to the complaint. The complaint alleged McEwen altered the file, changing the original $300 fine to $150. Keller paid $100 cash that day but failed to make the first $25 payment on March 26, 2008, the complaint said. On April 16, 2008, McEwen gave the administrator a check for the balance owed on the altered $150 fine and the administrator noted in computerized court records that the fine was paid in full, the complaint said. The board charged McEwen with violating the state constitution by "engaging in conduct that prejudices the proper administration of justice" and by "engaging in activity that brings the judicial office into disrepute." The board also charged McEwen with violating Rule 2A of the Rules Governing Standards of Conduct of Magisterial District Judges, which states that district judges "shall respect and comply with the law and shall conduct themselves at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary" and "shall not allow their family, social or other relationships to influence their judicial conduct or judgment." The board argued McEwen was also in violation of Rule 8A of the district judge rules, which requires district judges to recuse themselves from cases "in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned."
"As a matter of fact, I think that's criminal if it's true," he said. "That's the type of offense that could justify removing someone from the bench." Byer and Schwartzman both said that the alleged verbal abuse of a police officer is not to be taken lightly either. "It's not trivial because the last thing you want to do is tell a police officer 'You've got to wait until the morning,' or make the police officer reluctant to contact a judge at all to sign a warrant only to have the evidence disappear before the judge wakes up," Byer said, adding that this is particularly true when it comes to arrest warrants, for which time is of the essence. Schwartzman said misconduct in magisterial district court should be taken just as seriously as misconduct at any other judicial level. "That's the court most people come in contact with most often," Schwartzman said, adding that "most people form their impression of how the judicial system works" from their experiences with magisterial district court. McEwen's attorney, William I. Arbuckle III of the Mazza Law Group in State College, Pa., declined to comment beyond what was contained in a press release he issued Tuesday. According to the press release, Bucks County President Judge Susan Devlin Scott entered an order Tuesday placing McEwen on temporary paid administrative leave. "Judge McEwen appreciates the courtesy shown to her by Judge Scott given her health and family situation," the press release said. The press release also said McEwen will file a formal response to the complaint "within the time allotted by the rules." Joseph A. Massa Jr., chief counsel of the board, declined to comment on the complaint, citing board policy, and Nasshorn declined to comment on the record.