Back in 1995, Benjamin Lerner was wearing a black hat because of his role as one of the three administrators of a legal defense fund for his dear pal Ernie Preate, one of the scummiest Pennsylvania politicians who ever lived.
This was when Preate, a former state attorney general who almost slithered his way into the governor's office, was thinking about withdrawing his guilty plea in federal court. He was charged with taking money, while district attorney in Lackawanna County, from the operators of illegal gambling operations in return for not prosecuting them.
Lerner was one of those trying to help Preate win that legal battle, but Preate finally wound up in a federal prison in Duluth, Minn., and Pennsylvania smelled a little better, at least for a while. (After Preate got out, other pals, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, gave him back his license to practice law.)
In 1999, Lerner showed up in a white hat when he was running for a judgeship in Philadelphia, after twice being appointed to the bench to fill vacancies.
During that judicial election campaign, he made some waves by slamming the very process that soon would get him elected.
He said raising money in such a campaign was a big problem and indicated he'd favor merit selection — the appointment of judges as used in the federal court system.
"Campaigning is the worst way to pick a judge," Lerner was quoted as saying, noting that each lawyer who expected to appear before the winning judicial candidate was also expected (quid pro quo) to fork over some money for the campaign. "It used to be that a standard contribution was $100," he said. "Now it's $250 and above."
He said "it's got to make you wonder" how justice is served when judges, after they get on the bench, face lawyers who either did or did not come up with the money during the election campaign.
Such candor is rare among politicians who run for judge. In Lehigh County, for example, Doug Reichley saw nothing wrong with such a fundraising system, and he's now Judge Reichley.
When Reichley was running last year, he did not merely rely on quid pro quo expectations. He had two supporters send letters to all of Lehigh County's lawyers, specifying the amount each was expected to pay. When I asked him about complaints over those letters (from lawyers shocked by the brazen demands), he expressed anger that anyone questioned his integrity.
Getting back to Judge Lerner, I'm not sure about his hat color now, because I did not attend the trial of Jonathan Lowe, but I think it's black again, based on news accounts of that trial's outcome.
Before I get to that, please note that Philadelphia's Democratic machine, of which Lerner is a part, has long pushed illegal gun control ordinances, so the city's Democrats must have been especially upset over the state's new "Castle Doctrine" law, which expands the rights of citizens to defend themselves when attacked. The Dems want citizens to be totally dependent on Philly's stellar police force, rather like the way it works in tranquil Mexico.
In the Lowe case, news stories said, a thug named Loren Manning Jr., accompanied by two other thugs, jumped Lowe on a city street last October.
Lowe, 57, is a disabled and retired Marine, who has had two strokes and two heart surgeries and wears a pacemaker.
Manning and his sidekicks attacked Lowe and witnesses said Manning chased him and tried to clobber him with a metal pole before catching him and pinning him to the ground, where Lowe managed to retrieve a small pocket knife and used it to stick Manning, who, tragically, died.
This is Philadelphia, mind you, so Lowe was charged with various crimes — the Castle Doctrine law be damned — because he did not wait for the police to come and handle things. He then agreed to a non-jury trial before Lerner, and you can decide for yourself whether that was a good idea.
For one thing, the defense was not allowed to mention that Manning had 18 criminal convictions before he went after Lowe. Also, when Lowe was attacked, Manning was awaiting trial on charges he robbed a woman and knocked out her teeth.
(It would not surprise me if the woman is charged with injuring Manning's knuckles with her teeth, this being Philadelphia.)
Anyway, Assistant District Attorney Carolyn Naylor stressed that Lowe used his little knife to stab Manning more than once, including in the back, and the back wounds proved that Lowe was acting with malice. That was even though Lowe stayed at the scene and cooperated with police after Manning's lights went out.
Yes, Lerner agreed Wednesday, finding Lowe guilty of voluntary manslaughter and other offenses, which means Lowe will face up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced by Lerner later on.
Let all this be a lesson to you.
The next time you're in Tijuana — excuse me, I mean Philadelphia — remember that you'd better not act in self-defense against darlings like Manning. It is wicked to "take the law into your own hands," as opponents of the Castle Doctrine concept are fond of saying, both in Pennsylvania and in Mexico.
Pistol-packing Roy Rogers must be spinning in his grave, white hat and all.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.