This prior association has raised questions about his neutrality when he recently issued an injunction blocking a Philadelphia County Common Pleas judge from evicting the Scouts.
According to records of the Pennsylvania Dutch Scouts Council, Buckwalter served on its executive board from July 1980-July 1984 — the same time he was serving as a Lancaster County Common Pleas judge.
Buckwalter acknowledged his prior Scouts affiliation during a Jan. 19 court proceeding related to the city’s attempt to evict the Cradle of Liberty Council from a city-owned building on 22nd Street near the Ben Franklin Parkway.
Buckwalter, 73, emphasized that his prior service on the Pennsylvania Dutch Council “has no bearing whatsoever” on his rulings in the current litigation.
The Pennsylvania Dutch Council, headquartered in Lancaster — about 80 miles west of Philadelphia — serves about 10,000 youths in Lancaster and Lebanon counties.
City attorneys haven’t asked the judge to recuse himself from the case. At the court proceedings, Buckwalter said he wasn’t sure of the exact time period that he served with the Scouts, but indicated that he left the board shortly after becoming a Common Pleas judge.
“I decided I better get off,” he said, without elaborating.
But Pennsylvania Dutch Council records indicate that Buckwalter already was a Common Pleas judge when he ran for a Pennsylvania Dutch Council executive-board seat in mid-1980.
He was elected to four one-year board terms between 1980-84, said Edward A. Rasmuson, Scout executive for the Pennsylvania Dutch Council.
Backed by the local Republican Party, Buckwalter served as a Common Pleas judge from January 1980 to March 1990, when he became a federal judge.
When questioned about the discrepancy in his courtroom remarks, Buckwalter responded with a one-sentence letter to PGN: “I would trust the accuracy of the board’s record over my memory.”
Rasmuson said executive-board members hold fiduciary responsibility over the council’s finances, approve a strategic plan for the council and oversee the operation of its two campgrounds.
Currently, he said, about 25 people serve on the executive board.
“Our board is an active board,” Rasmuson told PGN. “Each board member is expected to participate in at least one board committee. It is expected of all our board members, today, that they also financially support the council.”
Rasmuson did not have details on Buckwalter’s activities and contributions while serving on the council’s executive board. He said current executive-board members aren’t paid for their service, and are expected to contribute financially to the council.
When asked if Buckwalter made any recent contributions to the council, Rasmuson said: “In 12 years of my tenure here, I can tell you with confidence that he has not been an active volunteer. For the last year, I can say with confidence he hasn’t contributed financially to the organization.”
At press time, Buckwalter hadn’t responded to questions about fundraising activities he may have engaged in for the council, whether he contributed financially to a Scouts group, what committee(s) he might have served on or whether he was a speaker or a guest of honor for a Scouting event.
Rasmuson said the Pennsylvania Dutch Council is affiliated with the national Boy Scouts of America and adheres to its policies, including its antigay membership policies.
“Each local council does not have the authority to change the national policy,” Rasmuson said. “We do adhere to it.”
He didn’t know whether the issue of membership qualifications came up during Buckwalter’s service on the council.
According to the Code of Judicial Conduct issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Common Pleas judges may participate in civic and charitable activities that do not reflect adversely on their impartiality, nor interfere in the performance of their judicial duties.
They’re discouraged from belonging to groups that are likely to have cases in front of them, and they shouldn’t use the prestige of their office to solicit funds for any group.
A judge also shouldn’t be a speaker or a guest of honor for an organization’s fundraising event, but may attend such events.
Buckwalter initially volunteered information about his prior Scouts affiliation during a discussion in his chambers with both parties in 2008, shortly after the Cradle of Liberty Council’s lawsuit was assigned to him.
But the judge hadn’t shared this information in an open court proceeding until this week.
Also during the Jan. 19 proceeding, Buckwalter asked attorneys for both sides if they had any questions about the matter.
Jason P. Gosselin, an attorney for the Scouts, told Buckwalter that his prior involvement with the Scouts was a “non-issue,” and commended the judge for disclosing the information to attorneys in 2008.
David Smith, an attorney for the city, said he had no problem with the information, noting the length of time that has transpired since Buckwalter’s board service.
Smith added that he was a Boy Scout in his youth.
Buckwalter said that he, personally, was never a Cub or Boy Scout, but added that his grandson is currently a Scout.
City attorneys objected to the injunction issued by Buckwalter on Nov. 18, 2009. It effectively prevents Common Pleas Judge Mark I. Bernstein from ordering the Cradle of Liberty Council’s eviction from 231-251 N. 22nd St. at this stage of the litigation.
Also at the Jan. 19 proceeding, Buckwalter gave both sides until Jan. 22 to submit a memorandum before deciding whether the Scouts should post a bond for the duration of the injunction.
Buckwalter additionally said there may be a public hearing at a future date to determine the bond amount, if he decides one should be posted.
The 22nd Street building is the only municipally owned building in the country that serves exclusively as a headquarters for a Scouts council.
City officials want to evict the Scouts from the building because the organization won’t permit openly gay participants, nor will it pay fair-market rent of $200,000 annually.
In their attempt to remain in the building, the Scouts filed a federal lawsuit in May 2008, alleging discrimination by city officials for exercising their constitutional right to ban gays.
The lawsuit relies largely on a 2000 Supreme Court decision stating that the Boy Scouts of America aren’t a public accommodation, so they’re not required to comply with local civil-rights laws protecting gays.
The city responded by noting that the Scouts are free to associate with whomever they please, but they aren’t entitled to city subsidies to facilitate discriminatory practices.
In prior court rulings, Buckwalter stated that the injunction is necessary until it can be determined whether the Scouts’ constitutional rights would be violated by the eviction.
Timothy Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.