Following a state Supreme Court order Thursday, the Luzerne County Common Pleas Court has regained complete control over adjudicating and disposing of the county’s juvenile cases.
The Supreme Court also announced that Berks County Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim has completed his review of the juvenile cases handled by former Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., with Grim’s oversight of more than 2,000 expungement orders being his lengthy final task.
With Ciavarella at the helm, along with his alleged co-conspirator, former President Judge Michael T. Conahan, the county’s juvenile justice system was the centerpiece of one of the biggest judicial scandals in state history.
According to a press release from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, 2,251 juveniles who appeared before Ciavarella have had their records expunged following Grim’s review. Grim also administered the juvenile crime victim compensation fund, leading to the Supreme Court approving about $65,000 in restitution for 110 victims of juvenile offenders whose convictions were tossed following the scandal.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said he would not have any problems opening juvenile proceedings to the public — a suggestion Grim made in his final report as well as a widely publicized and often-recited recommendation to the court.
In other news Thursday, the Luzerne County Common Pleas Court wrote it officially decided that the court’s delinquency unit would be melded into the county’s family court. Judge Tina Polachek Gartley has been assigned administrative judge of that unit, according to Luzerne County President Judge Thomas F. Burke Jr., and several judges will now hear juvenile cases.
Since 2008, Judge David W. Lupas has been hearing juvenile cases in place of Ciavarella. Lupas, who was recently appointed to administrative judge of the county court’s criminal division, will also continue to hear delinquency cases, according to Burke.
Prosecutors have alleged Conahan and Ciavarella accepted more than $2.8 million in kickbacks from the builder and former co-owner of a private juvenile detention facility as part of a scheme widely known as the “kids-for-cash” scandal.
Last February, a federal jury in Scranton found Ciavarella guilty of 12 of the 39 counts of corruption filed against him, including racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, honest services mail fraud, money laundering conspiracy and a host of tax fraud charges. He is serving a 28-year federal prison sentence.
Conahan, who pled guilty to one count of racketeering in 2010, was sentenced last September to 17.5 months in federal prison.
According to the release Thursday, Grim called the Luzerne County scandal “a judicial process [that] had run amok and in essence was governed by the wanton exercise of power, dominated by greed, and with little or no concern for the welfare of juveniles and with little or no adherence to the time-honored precepts of juvenile justice.”
Castille tipped his hat to Grim for his work on the embattled juvenile justice system.
“All Pennsylvanians owe Judge Grim a debt of gratitude for helping coordinate unprecedented cooperation among all three branches of state government in bringing about a fair resolution to a miscarriage of justice that affected so many juveniles, their families and the community at large,” Castille said, according to the release. “I thank him — on behalf of the entire court — for his service, dedication, and professionalism.”
Castille told The Legal that, since Grim’s February 2010 final report as special master through this past November, the senior judge was overseeing the expungement orders of the 2,251 cases. He called the process lengthy and complicated, adding that the project involved the cooperation of several other agencies.
Castille said in a telephone interview that the high court’s vesting the Luzerne County bench of complete control over juvenile cases should provide it with the “proverbial shot in the arm boosting their morale.”
“It’s going to help their court system because it shows the Supreme Court has confidence that they’re running the system correctly and the juveniles up there are getting fair treatment under the law,” he said.
The Supreme Court has yet to implement several proposed rule changes from various committees that were tasked with evaluating the state’s juvenile justice system after the scandal broke nearly three years ago.
One of Grim’s suggestions in his final report as special master — opening up juvenile courtrooms to the public — has been countered by the high court’s juvenile rules committee, Castille noted, and was conspicuously absent from the 66-page report handed up by the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice in May 2010.
Still, Castille told The Legal, he would support a public presence in juvenile court.
“I don’t have any problems with it, myself,” Castille said. “The citizens ought to know who’s committing crimes in their midst.”
While the Supreme Court has the power to implement a policy to open juvenile proceedings, other initiatives such as creating a statewide ombudsperson for juveniles, would require legislative attention.
For Burke, the Supreme Court’s action Thursday was symbolic of putting the debilitating scandal in the county court’s rearview mirror.
“I believe today’s action by the Supreme Court would suggest that the Luzerne County court has fully turned the corner with respect to its administration of juvenile delinquency cases,” Burke said. “Clearly, Judge Grim played a huge role in the overall efforts to redress the wrongs including his oversight with respect to the victim restitution funding that was made available to the original victims by a special act of the legislature approximately a year and a half ago.”
Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said the organization welcomes the news from the Supreme Court.
“Senior Judge Grim did a herculean job and this is an important step forward,” Marks said. “It’s important that Luzerne judges themselves will now be taking over.”
Ben Present can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BPresentTLI. •