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Pa. high court tosses ‘kids for cash’ convictions

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court tosses thousands of juvenile convictions issued by a judge charged in a corruption scandal, saying that none of the young offenders got a fair hearing.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed thousands of juvenile convictions issued by a judge charged in a corruption scandal, saying that none of the young offenders got a fair hearing.

The high court on Thursday threw out more than five years' worth of juvenile cases heard by former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella, who is charged with accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks to send youths to private detention centers.

The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, which represents some of the youths, said the court's order covers as many as 6,500 cases. The justices barred any possibility of retrial in all but a fraction of them.

"This is exactly the relief these kids needed," said Marsha Levick, the center's legal director. "It's the most serious judicial corruption scandal in our history and the court took an extraordinary step in addressing it."

Children appeared without lawyers
Children routinely appeared in front of Ciavarella without lawyers for hearings that lasted only a few minutes. Ciavarella also failed to question young defendants to make sure they fully understood the consequences of waiving counsel and pleading guilty, showing "complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles," the Supreme Court said.

After being found delinquent, the youths were often shackled and taken to private jails whose owner was paying bribes to the judge. Federal prosecutors have said that Ciavarella and another Luzerne County judge, Michael Conahan, took a total of $2.8 million in payoffs.

"Ciavarella's admission that he received these payments, and that he failed to disclose his financial interests arising from the development of the juvenile facilities, thoroughly undermines the integrity of all juvenile proceedings before Ciavarella," the Supreme Court said.

The judges pleaded guilty in February to honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal with prosecutors that called for a sentence of 87 months in prison. But the deal was rejected in August by Senior U.S. District Judge Edward M. Kosik, who said the two hadn't fully accepted responsibility for the crimes, and the ex-judges switched their pleas to not guilty.

A federal grand jury then returned a 48-count racketeering indictment against the judges, who await trial.

The Supreme Court had previously overturned hundreds of juvenile convictions involving low-level offenses. Thursday's ruling covered all cases heard by Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008, including ones involving more serious crimes.

"We fully agree that, given the nature and extent of the taint, this Court simply cannot have confidence that any juvenile matter adjudicated by Ciavarella during this period was tried in a fair and impartial manner," the court wrote.

Prosecutors in Luzerne County had agreed that none of the convictions should stand, but they wanted the right to bring dangerous offenders back into court for retrials.

The court said the district attorney's office may seek to retry youths who remain under court supervision — a group that Levick said likely numbers fewer than 100. And those youths may challenge any attempt to retry them on double-jeopardy grounds, the court said.

Ex-judges seek immunity
Berks County Senior Judge Arthur Grim, whom the justices appointed in February to review cases handled by Ciavarella, will consider any retrial requests made by the DA's office and forward his recommendations to the high court.

Meanwhile, the two ex-judges have asked to be dismissed as defendants in a series of civil lawsuits filed in the wake of the juvenile justice scandal.

Ciavarella and former Luzerne County Judge Michael Conahan already face criminal charges.

Now, they're seeking judicial immunity from civil lawsuits filed on behalf of hundreds of youths they sentenced.

A federal judge in Wilkes-Barre heard arguments on Wednesday but did not immediately issue a decision.

Immunity is designed to give judges freedom to rule without fear of legal retribution. But plaintiffs' attorneys say the judges' conduct went beyond the scope of normal court business.