The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has granted a senior judge from Berks County the authority to expunge the records of a "substantial number" of juveniles who appeared before former Luzerne County President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. between 2003 and 2008.
The decision comes two weeks after Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim recommended that the justices allow him to expunge the records of juveniles who had been charged with summary offenses and certain low-level misdemeanors and who were not represented by an attorney when they appeared before Ciavarella.
"The basis for my recommendation below that certain categories of cases should have the consent decrees and/or adjudications therein vacated and the records expunged, rather than having new proceedings is this," Grim wrote. "Had the juveniles in these cases been represented by competent counsel, had they appeared before an impartial tribunal, and had their other constitutional rights been protected, the vast majority of cases would have resulted in consent decrees, or some lesser sanction. Had these cases resulted in consent decrees or lesser sanctions, all the juveniles would be entitled to have their juvenile delinquency case records expunged by now pursuant to 18 Pa.C.S. § 9123."
Ciavarella and fellow former Luzerne County President Judge Michael T. Conahan took more than $2.6 million in kickbacks from one of the owners and the builder of PA Child Care, the government alleges. Both have admitted to taking the money and have agreed to serve 87 months in federal prison. The government, though, alleges that the payments amounted to a quid pro quo. Ciavarella and Conahan deny that allegation.
"This order represents another positive step in the Court's resolve to restore public trust and confidence in the juvenile justice system of Luzerne County," Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said in a statement. "Citizens of the county -- and the Commonwealth -- have a right to expect a full accounting of what happened and the correction of any abuse of judicial authority."
In February, the justices appointed Grim, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges' Commission, to review juvenile court cases handled by Ciavarella after Ciavarella and Conahan entered into conditional plea agreements with federal prosecutors.
This initial review only included cases involving low-level offenders who did not have attorney representation. Before an exact number of expungements is known, Grim must "conduct a further analysis to identify all cases covered by today's Supreme Court order."
Grim has told The Associated Press that his initial review involved hundreds of cases.
In his recommendation to the justices, Grim outlined seven criteria to be met before a juvenile's criminal record should be expunged. He wrote that the case must have taken place between 2003 and 2008; that the juvenile must not have had an attorney at his or her hearing before Ciavarella; and that the juvenile did not waive a right to counsel.
Grim also wrote that the offenses at issue had to have stemmed "from a single course of conduct or related incidents; or (b) were handled as part of a single proceeding or hearing."
The offenses had to be misdemeanors of the third degree or summary offenses.
Grim also wrote that the expungement would only apply if "the juvenile was not the subject of any prior or subsequent Petitions which resulted in adjudications of delinquency or consent decrees; and (vii) no proceeding seeking adjudication or conviction is pending."
"An additional factor weighing in favor of vacating the adjudications and consent decrees and expunging the records in the categories specified ... is that this prompt action in these non-serious cases will be at least one step towards righting the wrongs which were visiting upon these juveniles and will help restore confidence in the justice system," Grim wrote. "Furthermore, it is not in the interest of the community to relitigate these non-serious cases, nor do I believe that the victims would be well-served by new proceedings."
Grim also asked the high court to have the court records in question released to the Juvenile Law Center, so the JLC can review the files before accepting expungement. Grim wrote that the center may wish to delay that action and collect the records needed to continue in their civil actions. Grim also requested that the records be released to Luzerne County District Attorney Jacqueline M. Carroll for her review.
The senior judge will also conduct a separate review of cases involving more serious juvenile offenses, the court said.
"Today's order is not intended to be a quick fix," Castille said in a statement. "It's going to take some time, but the Supreme Court is committed to righting whatever wrong was perpetrated on Luzerne's juveniles and their families."