Attorneys Recount Luzerne County Judicial Scandal
November 19, 2009 — Attorneys who played key roles in exposing an unprecedented judicial scandal discussed their efforts to secure justice for juveniles in Luzerne County, Pa. during a visit to the Earle Mack School of Law on Nov. 19.
Marsha L. Levick and Lourdes M. Rosado of the Juvenile Law Center described events leading up to January’s indictment of two Luzerne County judges for allegedly accepting $2.8 million in kickbacks from the owner and developer of a private detention-center in exchange for sentencing juveniles there.
The Juvenile Law Center first became involved in 1999, when it took up the case of a minor who was adjudicated a juvenile delinquent during a 2-minute hearing in which he was not represented by counsel or given a chance to seek legal representation, said Rosado, associate director of the non-profit organization. After a lengthy appeals process, Rosado said, then-Judge Mark. A. Ciavarella vowed to ensure that all juvenile defendants coming before his court would have representation.
Safety and staffing deficits at the juvenile detention facilities kept the center involved with matters in Luzerne County until 2004.
Yet three years after the center settled two lawsuits over staffing and conditions at the detention facilities, the attorneys fielded a complaint from the mother of a girl who had recently been “summarily adjudicated,” said Levick, the organization’s deputy director and chief counsel.
The center then conducted extensive research that led to the discovery that inordinate numbers of youths in Luzerne County were waiving their right to counsel, pleading guilty and receiving stiff sentences for minor crimes, Levick said.
Hoping to reverse improper adjudications, the center filed a King’s Bench petition with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Levick said.
The novel legal strategy took some creativity to develop, Levick said, but it was necessary since Pennsylvania has no post-conviction remedies for wrongful convictions.
Although the Supreme Court refused to hear the matter in January, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania announced criminal charges against two Luzerne County judges involved in the controversy over the juvenile sentences.
The U.S. attorney charged the former judges, Mark A. Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan, with fraud and tax evasion for accepting payments from the detention center owner and developer.
The indictment, issued in January, represents the biggest scandal in U.S. judicial history, Levick said.
In October, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court approved the center’s petition for extraordinary relief, vacating 6,500 convictions of juvenile offenders.
The attorneys said the matter is far from over. The center is now seeking justice for the parents of the wrongfully convicted children, who had been billed by Luzerne County for the cost of the minors’ incarceration.
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