Last Friday a federal judge ruled that Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., the two former Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, judges who have been indicted for taking millions of dollars in kickbacks from the builder and operator of two juvenile detention centers that they helped keep full, are immune from civil liability for judicial actions related to the scheme. Responding to a lawsuit filed by former juvenile offenders who accuse Conahan and Ciavarella of conspiring to deprive them of their constitutional rights, U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo emphasized that the common law doctrine of judicial immunity, intended to preserve judicial independence, applies even in cases where judges are accused of egregious misconduct. Hence Ciavarella cannot be sued for railroading the defendants who appeared before him, routinely denying them the assistance of counsel, and shipping them off to the detention centers for minor offenses in exchange for payoffs. Caputo said his decision upholds "the rule of law in the face of popular opinion which would seek a finding directly contrary to the result the rule of law dictates."
Caputo ruled that both Conahan and Ciavarella can still be sued for actions they took outside the courtroom, such as arranging for PA Child Care to be Luzerne County's sole provider of juvenile detention services and pressuring probation officers to recommend jail. He also allowed the plaintiffs to pursue claims against Luzerne County and against a court psychologist accused of deliberately creating an evaluation backlog that forced defendants to spend more time in the detention centers. And he noted that Conahan and Ciavarella—whose plea deal, involving seven years of imprisonment, was rejected by a judge who felt it let them off too lightly—are still subject to criminal prosecution for the full range of their actions.
The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center unsuccessfully argued that Ciavarella's courtroom conduct was so far outside the norm that it should not be viewed as part of the judicial function. A story in The Legal Intelligencer suggests that both men acted more like gangsters than judges. Based on "hundreds of interviews with dozens of sources and extensive research of court records and prior news accounts," the paper reports that "the scam some in the media have labeled 'kids for cash' was just the tip of the iceberg and only the most blatant example of the corruption overseen by the two judges." Noting ties between Conahan, who prior to his guilty plea served as Luzerne County's president judge, and several local crime bosses, it paraphrases sources as saying "the two judges ran the courthouse like a mafia family."
Caputo's decision is here (PDF). More Reason coverage of the scandal here. The Juvenile Law Center has background here, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania has a website devoted to "Luzerne County Corruption Prosecutions" here.
[via The Wall Street Journal's law blog]