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Pennsylvania Judges Involved in Corruption Case Face Liability; 5,000 Convictions Thrown Out

by David M. Reutter

A Pennsylvania U.S. District Court has granted absolute judicial immunity to two former state court judges in a consolidated class-action civil rights suit. That immunity, however, only applied to judicial acts, allowing the case to proceed on the judges’ corrupt actions that were administrative in nature.

The lawsuit accuses Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr. of abusing their positions as judges of the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas by accepting approximately $2.8 million in payoffs. The conspiracy involved the judges tak-ing bribes from the owners of the privately-operated Pennsylvania Child Care (PACC) and Western Pennsylvania Child Care (WPACC) detention facilities, and intentionally filling those facilities with juvenile offenders to generate profit.

The conspiracy also included Robert Powell, Robert Mericle, Mericle Construction, Pinacle Group of Jupiter LCC, Beverage Marketing of PA, and Vision Holdings.

Conahan used his judicial position to remove funding from the Luzerne Court detention facility, then “exerted influence to facilitate the construction, expansion and lease of the PACC facility.” On Luzerne County’s behalf, he signed a secret “Placement Guarantee Agreement” with PACC. He also granted an injunction to prevent the results of a Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare audit of PACC from being disclosed to the public.

In conjunction with Conahan, Ciavarella sentenced thousands of juveniles to terms of incarceration in violation of their constitutional rights – denying them counsel, the right to an impartial tribunal, and the right to free and voluntary guilty pleas. The two judges also pressured probation officers to make recommendations in favor of detention, even when they otherwise would have sought alternative sentences. [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.42; May 2009, p.20].

In one case, Ciavarella sentenced a 14-year-old girl to incarceration despite her mother’s objections that she suffered from epilepsy and was subject to seizures. Two days later the girl had a seizure; she was in juvenile court because she defaced public property with a felt-tip pen. “People in power are not always people we should trust,” the girl’s mother ob-served.
The consolidated class-action lawsuit also charged Dr. Frank Vita with creating a backlog of psychological exams for offenders, as part of his contract with the two judges, to necessitate the juveniles’ extended detention at PACC and WPACC.

Before the district court was the defendants’ motions to dismiss. The court found that under the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity, Conahan and Ciavarella’s actions in granting injunctions, adjudicating juveniles as delinquent and sen-tencing them to terms of incarceration were within the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania common pleas judges.

However, such immunity did not apply to the judges’ administrative, non-judicial actions of signing the Placement Guarantee Agreement, influencing the Luzerne County commissioners and coercing probation officers to change their sentencing recommendations.

The district court also held that Dr. Vita was not entitled to witness/psychologist immunity for signing a contract with the judges and creating a backlog of psychological exams for offenders. The final issue in the motion to dismiss related to a juvenile’s claim that “Perseus House” had forced her to take psychotropic medication, for which the court declined to extend immunity.
The district court therefore granted in part and denied in part the defendants’ motions to dismiss on November 20, 2009. The class-action suit remains ongoing, with other dispositive motions pending. See: Wallace v. Powell, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:09-cv-00286; 2009 WL 4051974.

Meanwhile, the Conahan and Ciavarella corruption scandal resulted in close scrutiny by state officials, including a special review panel formed by the Pennsylvania legislature. On May 27, 2010, the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice called for increased oversight of state court judges, and made dozens of other suggestions for ensuring account-ability in Pennsylvania’s juvenile courts.

The Commission found that corruption in Luzerne County had been “deeply ingrained for many years,” and examined why prosecutors, public defenders and probation officers had failed to stop obvious abuses committed by the corrupt judges, such as routinely hearing cases in which juveniles did not have attorneys. “We trusted the judge,” said former assistant dis-trict attorney Thomas Killino. When asked whether prosecutors had wanted to know if sentences handed down by Ciavarella were unduly harsh, Killino replied, “It was not part of our purview.”

Separately, in January 2010, around 5,000 juvenile convictions were thrown out from the time when Conahan and Ciavarella were taking bribes. The convictions, which spanned 2003 to 2008, previously had been vacated by the Penn-sylvania Supreme Court. The district attorney’s office announced the cases would not be retried. “We are an example that shows how something should not be done. We know that here, no one is ever going to have to teach us that lesson [again],” stated District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll.

The criminal charges against Conahan and Ciavarella remain pending after they withdrew their guilty pleas in 2009. “I’m disappointed it’s taking so long,” said Laurene Transue, whose daughter was sent to a boot camp by Ciavarella after mocking a school official on her MySpace page. “When are they going to stand up before a judge and be held account-able?” Conahan and Ciavarella face a 48-count indictment for racketeering, bribery, money laundering, wire and mail fraud, and tax violations. Ironically, they are benefiting from procedural safeguards in their criminal prosecution that they denied to the thousands of juveniles they sent to for-profit detention facilities.

Sources: Philadelphia Inquirer, Billings Gazette,, Washington Post, Times Leader

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Related legal case

Wallace v. Powell