Pa. Judge Suspended Over Insurance Fraud Charges to Retire

Suspended Superior Court Judge Michael T. Joyce pleaded not guilty Monday to federal charges of mail fraud and money laundering, but abandoned his re-election campaign and said he plans to retire when his term expires in January.

Joyce was suspended by the state Supreme Court last week after a grand jury indicted him for allegedly bilking two insurance companies out of $440,000. He continues to receive his state salary of $165,342 a year plus benefits.

The developments left leaders of Pennsylvania’s Republican and Democratic parties scrambling to nominate candidates to compete for Joyce’s seat in the November election. Nominees for two other Superior Court vacancies were selected in the May primary election.

Both parties’ state committees are slated to convene Sept. 8 in Harrisburg to consider the new nominations, said Democratic chairman T.J. Rooney and GOP executive director Luke Bernstein.

“The circumstances certainly have changed,” said Bernstein.

Joyce, 58, a Republican who served more than a decade as an Erie County judge before his election to the state appellate bench in 1997, vowed to mount “a vigorous legal defense” against the criminal charges.

“It has been my great honor and privilege to serve Erie County and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a judge for the past 22 years. It is with immense regret that in light of recent events and after numerous discussions with my family, friends, colleagues and party leaders, I have decided with withdraw my name from the retention ballot this November,” he said in a statement.

Joyce did not attend the initial court hearing in Erie, but his lawyer, David Ridge, entered the plea before Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Paradise Baxter.

Joyce was required to post a $5,000 unsecured bond and to forfeit his passport as a condition of his release.

Joyce is the first Pennsylvania appellate judge to be charged with a crime _ and the first to be suspended _ in more than a decade, court officials said.

Until Monday, he was one of eight appellate judges seeking voter approval for an additional 10-year term in a yes-or-no “retention” vote this fall.

Judges can be forced to forfeit all of their state pensions except their own contributions if convicted of certain state or federal crimes, or if they are suspended, removed or barred from holding office for reasons that include misconduct that brings the judiciary into disrepute, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System said.

“It is either forfeited in its entirety or it’s not,” spokesman Robert Gentzel said.

The criminal case against Joyce stems from an August 2001 traffic accident that he said left him in such pain that he was unable to exercise or play golf for more than a year. Prosecutors say the judge’s car was rear-ended by another vehicle at about 5 mph, and that he faked his injuries to cash in on the insurance money.

The indictment says Joyce was playing 18-hole rounds on courses as far away as Jamaica, going scuba diving and inline skating, and working out at a local gym. He used the insurance money to buy a motorcycle and make down payments on a house and plane, it said.

The mail fraud charges are the most serious, each carrying a maximum prison term of 20 years.

Superior Court, which ranks beneath the state Supreme Court in the Pennsylvania judicial hierarchy, hears a range of appeals from county courts concerning both criminal and civil matters.