In a withering opinion, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled Wednesday that Allegheny Common Pleas Judge Donna Jo McDaniel must be removed from a case involving a convicted sex offender. The 13-page opinion expressed “substantial doubt as to [McDaniel’s] ability to preside impartially and provide a fair tribunal,” after the judge refused to comply with an order to correct her original sentence in the case.
In addition, the appeals court found that McDaniel harbored “hostility” toward the public defenders who argued the case. The court cited an earlier opinion of McDaniel’s that it said was “filled with gratuitous comments denigrating” the defenders.
The attorneys were representing Anthony McCauley, who was convicted in 2014 for sexually abusing a child over multiple years. Judge McDaniel sentenced McCauley to 20 to 40 years in prison.
McCauley appealed the decision in 2015, and the Superior Court remanded the case for resentencing. It was unclear, the court said, whether McDaniel had imposed a sentence under guidelines that the state Supreme Court had deemed unconstitutional. The Superior Court directed the judge to clarify the basis for her ruling, and impose a new sentence if necessary.
During the 2016 resentencing hearing that followed, however, McDaniel ignored the court’s order and simply reduced McCauley’s sentence by a few days.
Furthermore, the Superior Court wrote in Wednesday’s opinion, McDaniel “disparaged defense counsel” on various levels.
In an opinion about the resentencing hearing, for example, McDaniel faulted the public defender who represented McCauley for challenging the judge's sentencing procedures.
The action, the judge wrote in an opinion, was “reflective of defense counsel’s assertion of her agenda over the best interests of her client.”
The Superior Court also charged McDaniel with making a “veiled threat” by suggesting that, by disputing the judge’s sentencing practices in McCauley’s case, the public defender also harmed “other criminal defendants who may actually have meritorious claims.”
Vic Walczak, legal director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said McDaniel’s conduct was “particularly brazen,” and that the Superior Court was right to remove her from the case.
“Judges help enforce the laws, but they’re also bound by them. So, as in any job, when you fail to follow the rules, there’s got to be consequences,” he said.
“I mean, judges make mistakes – they’re human, we’re all human,” Walczak continued. “Their prejudices sometimes come into play, and then the case gets reversed – that’s why you have appeals courts.”
“But for a judge to be removed from a case,” he said, “is really quite an extraordinary thing.”
The Superior Court noted that its decision came after it reversed sentences McDaniels had imposed in two other cases involving sex offenders. The judge, the court said, either failed to consider factors that might lead to a lighter sentence or “relied on impermissible factors such as unreliable facts and misinformation.”
This pattern, Walczak said, suggests McDaniel might be ill-equipped to try other cases involving sex offenses.
“The really horrible cases are very, very hard,” Walczak. “But there are sentencing guidelines. There are court rules. There is constitutional due process. And those have to be applied even in these really hard, hard cases.”
“Judge McDaniel has a very long and well-earned reputation as a tough sentencer in sexual abuse cases – there’s nothing inappropriate or wrong about that,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor and 90.5 WESA legal analyst David Harris.
But, he added, “you can’t have a judge who consistently flouts guidelines or orders of appeals courts. That would lead to the whole system breaking down.”
“People have to have trust and faith in our criminal justice system,” agreed Miracle Jones, a spokesperson for the Abolitionist Law Center, a prisoners’ rights organization in Pittsburgh.
“And we know … that trust and faith in the system is waning,” Jones said. “And so, it’s very important in situations like this that we ... make sure that everyone has a fair chance at trial and a fair chance at sentencing.”
The Superior Court’s order to remove McDaniel from McCauley’s case, Jones added, sends a strong message to that effect.
In Wednesday’s opinion, the Superior Court did not demand additional sanctions against McDaniel. But, Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union said someone could file a complaint with the state’s Judicial Conduct Board.
In addition, Harris said Jeffrey Manning, the president judge for the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, could take actions that include refusing to assign sexual-assualt cases to McDaniel's court.
Manning did not respond to a request for comment, nor did McDaniel or the Allegheny County public defender’s office.