Pennsylvania's Judicial Conduct Board Tries To Salve The Reputations of The Board As Well As The Two "Kids For Cash" Judges
Two ex-judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan are accused of profiting from sending many juveniles, some without proper legal counsel, to two youth detention centers after finding them guilty of relatively minor charges. The two ex-judges face federal racketeering charges for allegedly accepting payoffs from the two detention centers.
Judicial Conduct Board tries to fight bad publicity from case against judges
Saturday, January 02, 2010
By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- The state Judicial Conduct Board says it's tired of getting kicked around in the news media over a case of alleged judicial misconduct in northeast Pennsylvania, so it's launched a counterattack before the state Supreme Court.
The dispute is between the conduct board and the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice which was created in 2009 in light of the notorious "kids for cash" case in Luzerne County.
Two ex-judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan are accused of profiting from sending many juveniles, some without proper legal counsel, to two youth detention centers after finding them guilty of relatively minor charges. The two ex-judges face federal racketeering charges for allegedly accepting payoffs from the two detention centers. They initially pleaded guilty but U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik rejected the plea deals in August, ruling that the judges hadn't accepted responsibility for their actions. They are awaiting trial.
The board's job is to investigate claims of misconduct by judges. A major issue in the Luzerne case is whether the conduct board did enough, in 2006, to expose and stop the alleged wrongdoing by the two former judges.
Board members maintain they acted properly when they referred the allegations against the two judges to federal prosecutors. But critics have said that the board, by not taking action on its own, allowed the two judges to stay on the Luzerne County bench for two more years, which allowed many more youths to suffer by being unfairly sent to jails or detention facilities.
Joseph J. Massa Jr., the conduct board's chief counsel, has countered that it's "a disgrace" for anyone to claim the board members ignored the allegations against the judges.
The interbranch agency was formed last year to do a public investigation of the case of the "rogue judges," as the conduct board's lawsuit calls the two ex-jurists. As part of its probe, the interbranch agency subpoenaed witnesses and documents from the conduct board.
Mr. Massa and board member Edwin Klett testified extensively before the commission on Dec. 8, the board's suit says, but they didn't provide some information they considered confidential under the state constitution. The conduct board wants the high court to uphold the board's decision to keep some information from the interbranch agency.
"The board has already provided much information, but has objected to certain requests that would require the disclosure of information that is strictly confidential" under the constitution, according to the lawsuit. It was filed by attorney Paul H. Titus of Pittsburgh, who is working with a law firm from Philadelphia.
"In particular, the board did not provide documents related to anonymous complaints received by the board because no public complaint had been filed," the lawsuit says.
The conduct board's suit claims, "Unfortunately, the [interbranch] commission has chosen to turn this into a media sideshow by publicly excoriating" the board during hearings in November and December for trying to protect the confidentiality of the board's information.
Rather than seek a ruling from the Supreme Court of what information has to be provided, the conduct board claimed the commission "apparently (prefers) to rely on publicity to put pressure on the board."
The conduct board said it "shares the outrage of the public and the commission at the lawbreaking by judges in Luzerne County. But the answer to lawbreaking by judges is not for the commission to pillory the Judicial Conduct Board for following the law."
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-774-4254.
Pennsylvania Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan's Mischief Anything but Juvenile
In a shocking display of judicial corruption, the AP reports that two senior juvenile court judges in a Pennsylvania county have been charged in a kickback scheme which may have resulted in hundreds of juveniles being wrongfully sent to detention centers for minor offenses. The judges, who were recently removed from the bench by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, are actually scheduled to plead guilty to fraud on Thursday with their agreements calling for "sentences of more than seven years behind bars."
The charges alleged that the judges set up a scheme with two privately operated youth detention centers, in which the judges would send kids off to the detention centers in exchange for what apparently ended up being millions of dollars in kickbacks. A Pennsylvania attorney shared her opinion on the degree of the corruption with the AP:
"I've never encountered, and I don't think that we will in our lifetimes, a case where literally thousands of kids' lives were just tossed aside in order for a couple of judges to make some money," said Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which is representing hundreds of youths sentenced in Wilkes-Barre.
The AP also noted that the scheme was long-running in nature, as well:
For years, youth advocacy groups complained that Ciavarella was ridiculously harsh and ran roughshod over youngsters' constitutional rights. Ciavarella sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants to detention centers from 2002 to 2006, compared with a statewide rate of one in 10.
Interestingly, other reports have pointed out that the misconduct of the judges may not have been limited to juvenile court proceedings. So what's next for the victims of these judges-gone-wild? Suing judges, particularly for money damages, can typically be a challenging endeavor as they enjoy judicial immunity from suit. However, judges are immune only for their judicial functions or acts, and victims could argue that the act of taking money in exchange for sentencing behavior was not a "judicial act", even if a judge's actual rendering of a sentence is. Alternatively, the private detention center operators could be targeted for their part in the scheme, as well. One angry mother has already started a lawsuit based on what happened to her daughter.
As for the juvenile records of the victims, the AP notes that the state's high court "is looking into whether hundreds or even thousands of sentences should be overturned and the juveniles' records expunged."
* Juvenile Crime and Juvenile Justice (FindLaw)