Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Judicial Ethics for Dummies: Part II

by Pa Rock
Court Reporter

Yesterday I wrote about a West Virginia Supreme Court Justice who "appeared" to have been purchased by an extremely large campaign donation. He had subsequently refused to recuse himself from a hefty damages case involving his campaign donor, and ruled not once, but twice, the way the donor wished. The U.S. Supreme Court has taken the question of the possible impact that campaign donations could play on the judicial process under advisement.

Last month there was another story about judges in the national press, and this time there was no question that the two jurists were purchased over a period of several years for a very large sum of money. The judges from central Pennsylvania were Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, both justices of the Juvenile Court. They have been accused of, and have tentatively agreed to plead guilty to, taking bribes from two privately run youth detention centers. In return for cold, hard cash, they funneled alleged juvenile offenders into those two facilities. The facilities, in turn, received reimbursements for each child inmate from the state of Pennsylvania.

Everybody won - except for the children, some of whom were guilty of "crimes" as lame as bitching about friends or school administrators on their My Space pages. The centers were run by PA Child Care LLC and a sister company, Western PA Child Care LLC.

While Judge Conahan was serving as President Judge in charge of the budget, he managed to help get the county-owned detention facility closed down and secure contracts with the two Child Care corporations. It was Judge Ciavarella's job to sentence kids to those facilities. The two Judges had been receiving kickbacks totaling between two and three million dollars since 2002.

Youth advocates had been complaining about Judge Ciavarella for years stating that his sentences were unusually harsh. Between 2002 and 2006 he sent a quarter of his juvenile defendants to detention centers. (The statewide rate was 1 in 10.) Often he would hold court with no legal representation present for the juvenile defendants. Authorities are now trying to figure out what to do with the more than 5,000 juveniles (and their records) who were sent away by Judge Ciavarella since the scheme began.

The two judges have entered into a plea bargain where they admit being involved in a kickback scheme and will receive jail time not to exceed 87 months. If convicted of the felony, they will also lose their judicial retirements.

A parent of one of the youthful offenders was standing outside of the courtroom when the two judges entered their pleas. She noted that when her daughter had left Judge Ciavarella's court, she was shackled in handcuffs and leg irons. That parent was disappointed that the two judges were themselves not adorned in any such hardware.

Where do we go for justice if our courts are tainted?

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