An American Bar Association report on Pennsylvania’s judicial conduct system provided a number of helpful recommendations on ways to improve the system and did so without being overly critical, particularly of the Judicial Conduct Board.

The team from the ABA’s Standing Committee on Professional Discipline that wrote the report made clear that its focus was forward thinking, and not on the JCB’s incompetence in the wake of the Luzerne County judicial scandal.

And that’s fine. It is time to move forward and work on fixing the system.

But anyone who thinks the ABA’s report is reason for members of the judicial conduct system to slap each other on the back and feel good is delusional.

One sentence alone in the 56-page report provides all the proof anyone needs of that.

When talking about reviewing material detailing the facts and events surrounding the Luzerne County scandal, the report states: “The information provided to the consultation team was very troubling.”

In a report that goes out of its way to be nice, that sentence stands out like a neon sign. I know a number of people in the legal community would have liked to see the report expound on what the team found “very troubling.”

That sentence should give anyone associated with the JCB pause. “Very troubling” does not equal good, grade A, clean bill of health, or any other description you would want associated with your organization.

Had the report tackled what they found “very troubling,” the end result would have been a lot different. So those in the judicial conduct system, and those who make excuses for them, would be wise to consider that.

Even with taking a very forward-looking and neutral tone, there’s also no escaping the fact the report describes a system that lacks transparency and is inefficient in its internal workings.

So that’s why my eyebrows have been raised by anyone who thinks the report gives the JCB something to crow about.

For instance, I was troubled by comments from our very own ethics columnist, Samuel C. Stretton. I’ve known Sam a long time and respect him a great deal, but his interpretation of what he thinks the report says made my jaw drop.

According to Sam (and you can read his column on page 4 of the Pennsylvania Law Weekly section today), the JCB staff does an “excellent job” that was “confirmed” by the report. He went on to say that the report “goes a long way in refuting” allegations “that unfairly criticized the JCB.” Sam also said: “This report should give the public confidence that the current system existing in Pennsylvania has handled professional discipline in a responsible fashion.”

To many who have looked into the JCB’s performance in the Luzerne County judicial scandal or read the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice’s report, Sam’s comments come across nearly as at odds with reality as former President George W. Bush’s “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie” comment to the former FEMA chief in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

The report doesn’t say anything or provide any proof of the JCB doing an excellent job. On page 8 of the report it lists the team’s view of the strengths of Pennsylvania’s judicial discipline system, which include providing judges with “appropriate levels of due process” and addressing situations where judges “may suffer from substance abuse as well as mental and physical disabilities.” The closest the report comes to praise is a page earlier when it says that it’s laudable that the various segments of the court system want to improve Pennsylvania’s judicial discipline system.

That doesn’t translate into “excellent job.” That doesn’t condone how the JCB handled the Luzerne County scandal.

In addition, how the hell can a report “refute” allegations and criticisms about the JCB when it never delves into or addresses the sources of both: the Luzerne County judicial scandal?

The answer is simple: It doesn’t.

The ABA report may not throw fuel on the fire, but it doesn’t put the fire out.

The JCB spent thousands of dollars prosecuting former Luzerne County Judge Ann Lokuta for essentially being rude and using court staff for personal matters, while doing nothing about allegations of case-fixing, mob ties, and the improper placement of juveniles in a privately owned juvenile detention center made against former Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Conahan, who later pleaded guilty to a RICO charge.

The JCB never investigated Conahan. They never referred the complaint to law enforcement authorities. The feds had to go ask them for it, although the feds already knew the JCB had it. (Wondering why the feds asked? Me too.)

The JCB had Conahan and fellow convicted felon Mark A. Ciavarella testify against Lokuta, even though it was aware of serious allegations made against both men. There are many people, including some of Lokuta’s critics, who believe Conahan manipulated the JCB in order to divert attention from him and to silence Lokuta. Our sources have confirmed that Lokuta, and another thorn in Conahan’s side at the time, former Luzerne County Controller Steven L. Flood, were sharing information and concern regarding Conahan and Ciavarella.

The JCB had to be dragged kicking and screaming before the ICJJ. Their story before the ICJJ and in the press changed numerous times. There were numerous inconsistencies.

The JCB is supposed to root out bad judges. Getting tipped off to arguably the most criminal judge in Pennsylvania’s history and doing nothing about it is not the hallmark of an excellent agency. There’s certainly nothing in the ABA report that makes that any less troubling.

The reason I continue to hammer away on this topic and take issue with Sam’s comments is because the JCB has never owned up to their mistakes. True, they’ve adopted new procedures. But we’ve never heard the internal staff say something like: “You know what, we screwed up. We think Lokuta doesn’t belong on the bench, but we made the wrong call. We should have focused on Conahan.”

A statement along those lines would give me more confidence than any report that the JCB had turned a new leaf. I’m all for looking forward, as the ABA report does. But when apologists want to somehow imply the ABA’s report absolves the JCB of the failures in Luzerne, it’s clear that someone needs to keep reminding the legal community of the travesty that happened. No one should forget. •

HANK GREZLAK is the editor-in-chief of The Legal Intelligencer . He may be contacted at 215-557-2486 or by e-mail at hgrezlak@alm.com.