By Craig R. McCoy

"Mildly pornographic." No worse than what "appears commonly in Playboy."

That was what a Pennsylvania board determined late last year when it cleared state Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin of misconduct _ even though he'd received about 50 pornographic emails on state computers.

The Judicial Conduct Board, under fire for its role in the so-called Porngate scandal, has offered a rare glimpse into its normally secret workings by publicly explaining its reasons for clearing Eakin.

In a step announced Monday by court officials, the board that polices Pennsylvania judges released the five-page letter it sent Eakin in late 2014 dismissing a complaint against him.

The letter said 50 images emailed to the Republican justice between 2009 and 2012 could "best be described as mildly pornographic or sexually suggestive in the vein of material that appears commonly in Playboy magazine."

And because Eakin had only received the adult-oriented emails, but had not sent any, the board concluded he was blameless.

The 12-member board praised Eakin's participation with the inquiry, calling him "cooperative and helpful" _ though the board noted he told them he could not recall receiving the explicit emails.

The board also wrote that "judges do not forfeit all the privacy that they had enjoyed as private citizens" and that it was clear Eakin's emails were meant to be "privately shared among friends."

Eakin's only possible trangression, the panel said, was failing to tell his friends to knock off sending him offensive emails. But that omission "does not rise to the level of sanctionable misconduct," the board said.

The judicial board has been under pressure to explain how it handled the Eakin case ever since state Attorney General Kathleen Kane declared on Oct. 1 that she had email evidence tying the justice to "racial, misogynistic pornography." The justice violated ethics rules, Kane said.

Neither Kane nor the judicial board have made any of Eakin's emails public. But the Philadelphia Daily News has reported that, along with sexually explicit messages, Eakin received emails that mocked African-Americans as lazy, gay people as promiscuous, Muslim children as suicide bombers, and Mexicans as "beaners."

The newspaper also cited three emails sent by Eakin _ two containing bawdy jokes; one was a supposed gag in which a victim of domestic abuse is advised she won't get hit if she keeps her "mouth shut."

In contrast, the board letter clearing Eakin last year said the judicial panel had not found any emails with racial connotations.

If it finds misconduct, the board can bring charges that are heard by a Court of Judicial Discipline. Supreme Court justices found guilty of misconduct can appeal to a special tribunal made up of state Commonwealth and Superior Court judges.

After Kane leveled her charge, the conduct board and state Supreme Court reacted _ the high court, too, cleared Eakins following an investigation _ by reopening separate inquiries into his emails.

The previous investigations took place late last year when the scandal over pornographic messages sent on state computers first shook the high court. Kane lit that fuse, too, disclosing that her office's email servers had served as a hub for the exchange of porn among state and federal prosecutors, jurists, detectives and others.

The scandal has already cost the high court one justice. Seamus McCaffery's colleagues suspended him after an inquiry found he had sent or received 234 emails with porn between 2008 and 2012. McCaffery retired from the court amid allegations he had threatened to expose Eakin as a porn recipient.

Before he retired, McCaffery said, "I sincerely apologize for my lapse in judgment." Similarly, Eakin said last week: "I sincerely apologize."

In a continuing dispute about whether Kane provided every damaging Eakin email to investigators, Kane, a Democrat, issued an official statement last week saying that the investigations had indeed had access to the key emails. She stressed that her office had given a computer disk containing damaging material to the conduct board.

Within hours, though, her spokesman added an important caveat. The disk was incomplete, the office acknowledged.

Spokesman Chuck Ardo said the office later found more damaging emails only after the disk was made. But it said it did not make them available until last Dec. 10 _ two days after a majority of the dozen members of the Judicial Conduct Board had voted to clear Eakin.

Ardo said the attorney general's office had informed the board of the new discovery. Robert Graci, the board's chief counsel, declined Monday to confirm or deny that.

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer