An Allentown district judge accused of "nasty, rude, erratic and strange" behavior during hearings in her courtroom filed her response Friday, acknowledging she is "passionate" on the bench but denying she acted improperly.
District Judge Maryesther Merlo, through her attorney, also asked a state court to dismiss the complaint filed last month by the Judicial Conduct Board.
"The judge at times has strongly felt opinions, but she always exhibited proper and appropriate behavior," her attorney, Sam Stretton of West Chester, said in the filing. "Sometimes she can be passionate about her viewpoints, but there is no indication of mood swings or improper conduct."
In the 33-page complaint laced with words such as "nasty, rude, erratic, strange, bizarre, irrational, unpredictable, yelling, demeaning, babbling, rambling, nutty and crazy," the Judicial Conduct Board on Nov. 4 filed charges against Merlo that could lead to sanctions against her.
The complaint, based on information gathered by the board, detailed days when Merlo called in sick or arrived late to her courtroom, causing postponements and delays.
In her response, Merlo rejected allegations that she is constantly late or absent, causing hearings to be canceled or rescheduled.
Stretton said Merlo needed time off to campaign for re-election last year, which he called a "perfectly acceptable explanation."
"As long as judges have to run for election, there has to be time for them to fully campaign," Stretton wrote in the response.
He said Merlo often arrives in court 30 minutes late to allow attorneys to resolve cases.
"It was her opinion if she came out initially, it would be a waste of time since nothing would be resolved," Stretton said.
Joseph Massa Jr., chief counsel of the Judicial Conduct Board, has said the Court of Judicial Discipline will decide if Merlo violated judicial laws. If it rules she did, the court would hold a sanctions hearing at a later date.
In a phone interview Friday, Stretton said he expects Merlo's trial to take place in about three months.
When reached Friday morning, Massa said he hadn't seen Merlo's response yet. An attempt to reach Massa later in the day was unsuccessful.
The Judicial Conduct Board said Merlo once tried to force an assault victim to testify after her attorney said the woman was asserting her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The complaint says Merlo became "close to enraged," saying, "I am going to look for some way to charge her with perjury ... And if she doesn't testify, I'm going to put her in jail."
After the sheriff's office refused to arrest and handcuff the woman as Merlo instructed, the hearing continued and, at one point, she yelled at the woman's attorney to "shut up," the board claims. It says the hearing ended with Merlo charging the woman with contempt of court and ordering her to pay a $110 fine and spend 10 days in jail. Her attorney successfully appealed the case to Lehigh County Court.
Merlo denied the claims, saying she didn't want the woman to testify, but the woman wouldn't assert her Fifth Amendment rights or testify, so Merlo believed the woman was in contempt.
The judge denies forcing a man to marry his girlfriend within six weeks to resolve a parking case, although she admits writing an order that said if he married the woman, his case would be dismissed, while if he didn't, he would have to pay fines. The man was ordered to pay after not marrying the woman.
Merlo has said she entered the order because the defendant said he wanted to change his life and marrying his girlfriend would be a positive step toward that.
Stretton said the order may have been "unorthodox," but not unreasonable.
"Many judges have defendants write essays or do community service," he wrote. "Some judges have defendants read books and write essays on them. In the context, there is nothing wrong with what [Merlo] did."
Merlo denied ever forcing a defendant to admit he was a "scumbag," saying she wouldn't use that kind of language.
She also denied instructing her staff to enter judgments in 85 landlord-tenant disputes in favor of the landlord if the tenant did not appear, regardless of the evidence. She says she properly handled the cases and entered all default judgments on her own.
Merlo, an attorney, continues to preside over cases at 1216 Liberty St. for Allentown Wards 4, 7 and 11.
"She denies that she was rude, nasty, bizarre, irrational etc. On the contrary, [Merlo] is a very intelligent and well trained judge," Stretton wrote. "She does not use improper language or curse words. She does not belittle people."
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