In a case that has become a long-running spectator sport for Philadelphians, a local judge has been accused of improper meetings with three lawyers who then won awards of as much as $8.5 million from him in non-jury trials.
The judge's former law clerk also has charged that Bernard Snyder of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas allowed two lawyers to write or contribute to his opinions and that he accepted favors from one. In addition, Snyder has confirmed that he is a long-time friend of an Atlantic City mobster.
The allegations stem from an evidentiary hearing that has run for nearly two months over whether Snyder should be removed from a controversial libel case because of his friendship with the plaintiff's attorney. Snyder is presiding over the recusal proceeding, testifying and ruling on objections and admissibility of evidence.
At the center of the storm is Snyder's handling of the suit against Philadelphia Magazine and allegations that Snyder helped the plaintiff's lawyer plot trial strategy while Snyder was sitting on the case.
David Marion, who is representing the magazine in the lawsuit, had filed a motion, asking that Snyder recuse himself in the case and that it be assigned to an out-of-county judge.
On May 6, Snyder responded with an unusual step. Although the lawyers had not made closing arguments in the non-jury trial, Snyder ordered the magazine to pay $2 million in compensatory and $5 million in punitive damages.
Snyder wrote his 230-word ruling in Reno, Nev., where he was lecturing at the National Judicial College. He has stated that he had not taken along any testimony in the case to aid in his decision.
The case against Philadelphia Magazine involves a long 1971 article on corruption in Atlantic City which referred briefly to James Reginald Edghill as "one of the biggest dealers in town (a specialist in cocaine)."
Edghill is the plaintiff in the case, and his lawyer M. Mark Mendel has charged that the reference in the article was false and ruined Edghill's nightclub and bar business in Atlantic City.
But most of the attention has focused not on the libel trial but on the recusal proceeding, which has gone forward with all the decorum of a three-ring circus.
On one side is Mendel, a big, beefy man of 54 with black, slicked back hair, a thick handlebar mustache and a flair for flamboyant courtroom theatrics. Mendel has enraged defense lawyers by frequently referring to attorney Arthur Bryant, who is assisting Marion, as "dogface." In his court appearances, Mendel has also been prone to bark, growl and make references to fleas.
Mendel has charged that Snyder is a victim of a "press war" against judges in Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Inquirer was sued last month by a state supreme court justice over articles on alleged unethical behavior by justices on that court. Marion's firm represents the Inquirer and other media, and Mendel claims that Marion dictates some of the Inquirer's editorials.
On the other side is Marion, 44, who has a quieter and more conservative style and who has clashed previously with Mendel. Last year he won an upset in a bitterly contested election to become vice chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association and automatically will become chancellor in 1985. Marion was strongly opposed by Mendel.
Snyder, 57, has played both judge and witness during the recusal hearing, testifying from the bench and ruling on the admissibility of other witnesses. At the start of the proceeding May 25, Snyder conceded that "there is no precedent that I can find for a judge testifying in a recusal motion."
Snyder refused through a spokesman to be interviewed or to release any statement.
The allegations about Snyder arose in an affidavit filed last March by D. Herbert Lipson, publisher of Philadelphia Magazine. Lipson charged that Mendel had been raising money for Snyder's campaign for the state supreme court and that Snyder accompanied Mendel on a chartered bus trip to Atlantic City where Mendel's son was taking part in his professional boxing match.
Mendel was infuriated but did not deny that Snyder was on the bus, along with one of the trial witnesses, the plaintiff's former lawyer in the case and the judge who assigned the case to Snyder.
"He was not invited by me but by another lawyer," Mendel said. "He ends up on that bus and that becomes the focal point for the world saying the case is fixed. It says we plied him with booze and food. That came with the bus. We didn't ply him at all."
The Lipson affidavit also accused Snyder of associating with "Atlantic City organized crime figure Saul Kane," now serving two years in federal prison for extortion.
Snyder, testifying from the bench, confirmed that he has known Kane "since he was a child . . . . During the summer months, when I am down the shore, I probably speak to him at least every week. During the winter, much more infrequently . . . . I know him some 40 years. His brother and I were close friends . . . . I have known the whole family."
The bombshell came this month when Marion announced that he planned to call Snyder's former law clerk, Jill Cohen, to testify about contacts between the judge and lawyers with cases before him.
Snyder refused to allow the testimony.
But according to Marion's statement in the court transcript and an affidavit by Cohen, she would have testified that she observed between Mendel and Snyder "numerous ex-parte meetings," phone calls, discussions of "trial tactics, evidentiary questions, characterizations of witnesses." She said Snyder and Mendel met daily and sometimes more often and that Mendel had assisted the judge in his campaign for the state supreme court, writing a speech and doing photocopying. (Snyder dropped out of the race.)
Cohen said that after Marion filed the recusal motion in March, Snyder began to meet Mendel outside his office, often at a local restaurant. She said, Snyder was "angry and furious" about the recusal motion and said it "would cost Marion another $3 million in punitives." She added that Mendel said in her presence that "Marion would be sorry for filing the motion."
Cohen also charged that the judge met with two other plaintiff's lawyers who subsequently won awards of $775,000 and $8.5 million in non-jury trials before Snyder. She also said one of those lawyers and a third one had either written opinions for the judge or helped write them in cases they were representing.
Speaking from the bench in his tiny courtroom recently, Snyder refused Marion's request to reopen the libel trial at that time and said, "There is no question that Mrs. Cohen's testimony will find a forum. It will not be this forum, but it will be a forum."
Snyder refused to allow testimony from eight other witnesses called by Marion, including Snyder's secretary, Mendel's secretary and other courthouse employes who would have been asked about contacts between Mendel and the judge.
Snyder, whose conduct is under investigation by the district attorney and the state Judicial Inquiry and Review Board, criticized Marion and Bryant for releasing the transcript of Cohen's planned testimony and said he would ask the board to take disciplinary action against them.
Then Snyder announced that the testimony had ended and that he would decide whether to recuse himself after lawyers file final briefs. If he does recuse himself, the case presumably would be retried. If he does not recuse himself, the magazine could appeal, but would have to post bond of more than $8 million since it did not have libel insurance in 1971.
Following the hearing, Mendel would not talk about the allegations of improper meetings with Snyder except to say, "This is a city of 7,000 some lawyers and 100 some judges. There isn't a day that goes by that lawyers aren't in the company of judges and vice versa."
But he said he will probably hear more about the allegations when the case is appealed. "I'm a big boy and I throw stones . . . . I handle high-profile cases . . . . Hey, if that's part of the defense, they'll get a chance to prove it."
Mendel charged, however, that Cohen is lying.
"These desperation tactics are obvious to me. I had read Jill Cohen's affidavit . . . . You know what? It's sickening. It just didn't happen."
Snyder said it was obvious that Marion would have to do "something desperate. I'm amazed they didn't come up with sex tapes."