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Judge Anne Covey suggests conflict of interest by Penn State trustee Keith Eckel

Penn State trustee Keith Eckel’s participation in the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Judicial Evaluation Commission process regarding Judge Anne Covey represented a conflict of interest, Covey said.
Penn State trustee Keith Eckel’s participation in the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Judicial Evaluation Commission process regarding Judge Anne Covey represented a conflict of interest, Covey said. CDT file photo

Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey has become tied to Penn State in recent years as she has presided over state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman’s lawsuit against the university and the NCAA.

In one decision, however, it is Covey questioning the ruling, and putting some blame on a Penn State trustee.

On Monday, Covey for Justice, the election committee supporting the judge’s bid for the Supreme Court, released a letter Covey sent to the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

The state bar association’s recommendations for open state court seats were released Jan. 28. Five candidates were “highly recommended,” seven “recommended” and one “not recommended.”

Covey was not even on the list.

According to Keith Naughton, of Covey for Justice, the judge participated in the bar association’s Judicial Evaluation Commission process, including answering questions, allowing an investigation and being interviewed. That commission includes 19 members — some lawyers, some not — from all over Pennsylvania.

One of them is Keith Eckel, a nonlawyer member from Lackawanna County. The problem, Covey’s camp alleges, is that Eckel has another official seat: he is a Penn State trustee.

Naughton said Covey cited the conflict of interest involved in Eckel sitting in on Covey’s evaluation after the highly public Corman case was in her court.

The case was settled about two weeks before the recommendations were released. Until then Covey had released a series of decisions in the case that cut for the defense, with some stinging criticism for the NCAA, including accusing it of “forum shopping” to get a better verdict from federal court.

In a statement released by Penn State on Tuesday, Eckel said, “I never attended an interview or a meeting to evaluate any candidates.”

Naughton said Covey was initially told the recommendation decisions were made by the full commission and then later told that no Penn State trustees participated.

“Both statements cannot be true,” he said, adding that “it is very easy to recuse yourself.”

Naughton said Covey also “provided evidence” that the JEC “exceeded its authority” and that the chairman, Robert Morris, failed to act property and made “factually inaccurate statements.” She also called for the bar association to make the documents relative to the evaluation public.

President Francis O’Connor said in a statement that the JEC is “an independent commission comprised of volunteer lawyers and nonlawyers. Its mission is to help the citizens of Pennsylvania make informed choices about their judges before they enter the voting booth. ... While some of the candidates may not agree with the ratings issued, the ... JEC strives to provide the voting public with an objective evaluation of candidates who stand for election or retention to the appellate bench in Pennsylvania.”

So, just what is Covey’s rating?

“That’s a good question for them. We don’t really know,” Naughton said. “It’s a very opaque process.

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