The View From Here | Legal Notices Serve a Vital Purpose

Notice of a sheriff’s sale in a recent Jewish Exponent.

Notice of judicial proceedings, such as a pending sheriff’s sale of property, and other legal ads has been a hallmark of newspaper publishing going back decades. They serve an important purpose, embodying the ideas that no one should be deprived of property without due process of law and that process cannot be effectuated without a party’s knowledge.

But what happens when the very system designed to protect the rights of others becomes a mere formality?

That was the question the Supreme Court dealt with in 1950, declaring in Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co., that to be effective, legal notice must be “reasonably calculated” to inform those affected by the proceedings. The case, one of the first discussed in freshman civil procedure classes at law schools across the country, concerned a N.Y. law mandating the publication of a notice of pending judicial accountings of certain trust funds in a newspaper once a week for four weeks.

The problem in Mullane was that some beneficiaries might not be able to tell if their fund was the subject of a notice; most wouldn’t even think to look in the legal ads.

I’m happy to report that The Philadelphia Inquirer has apparently taken up this most basic of constitutional issues. But the daily newspaper, which reaps millions in revenue for publishing notices of sheriff’s sales and other legal ads from the office of Philadelphia County Sheriff Jewell Williams, has sadly come out on the side of less — not more — notice being given to the public.

That’s the takeaway from an investigative report in the April 29 Inquirer, which bemoaned not the publication of legal ads in the Inquirer or the Legal Intelligencer — in Philadelphia, such ads are legally required to be published in these papers — but rather the publication of these ads in several community and ethnic newspapers.

The argument, which led Inquirer Publisher and CEO Terrance C.Z. Egger to forgo extra advertising dollars for the publication of a special section devoted to trumpeting the Sheriff Office’s recent accomplishments, is that since publishing the ads in community newspapers is not legally required, it is a drain on the taxpayer-funded agency and on people who find their foreclosed houses the subject of a sheriff’s sale.

The report also documented what it said were questionable relationships between Williams, Ken Smukler — the embattled politico and publisher of the Liberty Press consortium that runs the ads — and the politically connected marketing team that takes a 15 percent cut of the ad buys in exchange for placing them in the publications.

For the record, the Jewish Exponent is not a member of the Liberty Press group. But it does publish — proudly, I might add — the legal notices on what currently amounts to a quarterly basis.

Unreported by the Inquirer, but emphasized in an op-ed in May 1’s paper written by Mark Segal, the Philadelphia Gay News publisher and member of the Philadelphia Multicultural Newspaper Association whose own paper runs the legal ads in question, is that between 2012 and 2017, when the expansion of multicultural advertisements took place, the collection of delinquent taxes and fees by the Sheriff’s Office rose from $27 million to $61 million. All told, according to the Sheriff’s Office, $248.9 million has been contributed to the city tax rolls since 2013.

If there is impropriety at the Sheriff’s Office or any other city agency, it should be rooted out and dealt with. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of a service that both funds the bottom line of vital community resources like the Exponent and provides the public with expanded notice of judicial proceedings.

It is ironic that the Inquirer, which just last year condemned a plan supported by then-N.J. Gov. Chris Christie to switch all legal notices to simple online postings, has placed such advertising in its crosshairs. But that it has done so without implicating its own legal advertising service — which despite decreasing circulation, has increased the fees it charges to the Sheriff’s Office — is unconscionable.

At the end of the day, an expanded network of legal advertising serves all of us.

While the facts were different in Mullane, that landmark case’s conclusion remains as a guiding light in the pursuit of fairness in this country: The mechanisms of justice shouldn’t take place in the shadows. For that matter, they shouldn’t be buried in the pages of just one or two newspapers when a better alternative is already working.

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here