After initially getting caught flat-footed, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has generally made all the right moves as it attempts to deal with the fallout emanating from the judicial wasteland known as Luzerne County.
The court appointed Berks County Senior Judge Arthur Grim to review the juvenile cases, and he quickly turned around a report. The justices then gave him the authority to expunge the records of a “substantial number” of juveniles who appeared before disgraced former President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. Grim has been good for the court system in the wake of the worst judicial scandal in Pennsylvania history. His reputation, his speed in reviewing the matters and the humanity he demonstrated on ABC’s “20/20″have helped restore some credibility to the courts.
Grim’s appointment has been but one part of the court’s response to the scandal. The justices also ordered Luzerne County’s president judge to issue monthly progress reports and a hearing to examine whether corruption in the Luzerne County Courthouse played a role in a defamation case being assigned to Ciavarella.
But perhaps the most problematic issue the justices have had to deal with so far is former Luzerne County Common Pleas Judge Ann H. Lokuta’s case.
Lokuta was booted from the bench for, among other things, being verbally and physically abusive to her staff, showing up late for work, failing to recuse herself in two cases where she had conflicts of interest and lodging false accusations against a court administrator.
Lokuta was the first judge in the 15-year history of the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline to be removed from office without first being convicted of a criminal offense.
She has since argued that she’s owed a new trial because of evidence that has surfaced as a result of the corruption probe.
Lokuta, who said she spoke to the FBI during its investigation, has essentially argued that Ciavarella and his buddy, fellow disgraced former jurist Michael Conahan, conspired to get her ousted from the bench.
The justices have halted the election that was set to fill Lokuta’s seat, and they’ve also stayed the Court of Judicial Discipline’s 2008 order against her, telling that court to review Lokuta’s claims that her trial was compromised by the courthouse corruption.
So why is Lokuta’s case so problematic for the Supreme Court? There are two big reasons.
First, it’s going to put the whole judicial disciplinary system under the microscope — with everybody in the state sure to be watching. Second, nearly every judge and former judge I speak to, along with folks in Luzerne County, tell me they believe generally in Lokuta’s main argument: that she was set up by the corrupt judges.
To be fair to Joseph Massa, the Judicial Conduct Board’s chief counsel, and Francis K. Puskas, the board’s deputy chief counsel and the person who brought the case against Lokuta, I’ve found plenty of people, both Luzerne County legal insiders and state and federal judges from around the state, who have had less then stellar things to say about Lokuta and how she treated her staff and others. Many have described her as difficult. Several have used more colorful language to describe her demeanor.
But as one judge from another part of the state pointed out to me, if being difficult and mean were grounds to be removed from the bench, a lot of judges would be out of jobs.
The striking thing to me in covering the Luzerne corruption probe almost daily since late January and literally spending hundreds of hours of the phone with sources, has been how many have offered up, without any prodding, their belief that Lokuta got a raw deal.
Terrible. Horrible. Unfair. Cruel. A set-up. A judicial hit. Those are among the terms people have used to describe what happened to her. Again, many of these folks tell me they know Lokuta or have seen her around the courthouse or operate in court. They don’t shy away from pointing out her faults. But they are adamant in their beliefs.
When I spoke to Puskas in January, he was quick to point out that 31 witnesses testified against Lokuta. However, four of them — among the highest ranking officials testifying against her — have all been implicated in the scandal. Conahan, Ciavarella and Luzerne County Court Administrator William T. Sharkey have pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Another, Luzerne County Prothonotary Jill Moran, has agreed to step down from her post and is cooperating with investigators.
Look, I’m not good with math, but it would seem that if more than 10 percent of its witnesses have been implicated in a corruption probe, the Judicial Conduct Board might want to rethink its case. The board, and the Court of Judicial Discipline, might both want to take a long, hard look, and see if perhaps they were duped.
I’m not saying they were. I’m not saying the board doesn’t have a case against Lokuta. But I am saying the whole affair reeks. And so do a lot of other judges and people in Luzerne County.
The board, the Court of Judicial Discipline, and the Supreme Court cannot decide Lokuta’s case in a vacuum. Read all the articles we’ve written on the corruption probe. Read all the stories the local Wilkes-Barre papers have written on it. Given what all our research and sources have told us, understand that not nearly all of the alleged corruption has come to light yet. It is pervasive. It is deep.
I’ve talked with people who’ve known Conahan their whole lives and those who have been in and around the courthouse, and they describe him as a master manipulator, always on the make, always looking to pull strings. People have alleged there were monthly meetings between him and two admitted felons, one of them, William D’Elia, a reputed mob boss. Think someone like that might want to get rid of a judge who is less than loved by everyone?
Sources routinely tell me that the county is going to implode and that “we’re not done with the ‘Holy shit!’ moments.”
The people who run the state’s judicial disciplinary system need to understand that. They need to view Lokuta’s case in that context. They need to understand that many judges believe that Lokuta was a victim. If judges and the public come to believe in the end that Lokuta was set up by corrupt judges and crushed by a disciplinary system that didn’t take time to examine her accusers, then the system will lose credibility.
The justices, the board and the Court of Judicial Discipline are not helpless in this. The Court of Judicial Discipline can give Lokuta a fair hearing and consider a new trial. A new trial is probably the only way to guarantee an outcome that is viewed by all as fair and untainted. If she’s tried again and still removed, it would eliminate any doubt and validate the fairness of the process and the judicial disciplinary system.
The board, instead of simply pushing hard to prove its existing case, should consider, in light of all the evidence that has surfaced, checking their case for holes. The board should consider interviewing courthouse employees and lawyers who didn’t testify against Lokuta last time and see what they have to say. Ask those people what they think of her conspiracy theories. Maybe those folks will validate and strengthen the board’s case. Or perhaps, if they tell you what many have told me, the board will rethink its case and reconsider whether it, like so many others, was the victim of corruption. •
Hank Grezlak is the editor-in-chief of The Legal Intelligencer. He may be contacted at 215-557-2486 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.