Ciavarella
Mark Ciavarella at a prior court appearance ()

A federal judge has ruled that former Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. is liable for nonjudicial conduct that deprived juveniles of their right to an impartial tribunal.

In a 23-page opinion issued Thursday in Wallace v. Powell, U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo of the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted the unopposed motion for partial summary judgment filed by a class of youths who were locked up in the Luzerne County “kids-for-cash” scandal.

Caputo said that while he held in a November 2009 ruling in Wallace that Ciavarella was protected by judicial immunity for his “‘courtroom conduct,’” not everything Ciavarella did, including coercing probation officers to change their recommendations and helping to close a county-run juvenile detention facility, fell within the scope of his judicial office.

The consolidated suits in Wallace allege that Ciavarella and fellow former Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael T. Conahan conspired with one of the co-owners of the PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care detention facilities to generate excessive profits by intentionally filling those facilities with juveniles.

In 2012, a federal jury in Scranton, Pa., 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 now serving 28 years in federal prison.

Conahan, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in 2010 to one count of racketeering and is currently serving a 17-and-a-half-year federal prison sentence.

Caputo said Ciavarella took steps outside of his judicial role to ensure that juveniles who appeared before him were sent to one of the two detention centers.

“In particular, Ciavarella’s nonjudicial acts … set in motion and/or caused the deprivation of plaintiffs’ right to an impartial tribunal as he initiated the scheme to construct a new detention facility, he assisted in closing the River Street facility and he expanded a policy which increased the number of juveniles that appeared before him,” Caputo said. “And, these acts were all taken without Ciavarella ever disclosing, and, in fact, while he took affirmative steps to conceal his financial interest in the success of PACC and WPACC. Accordingly, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Ciavarella subjected plaintiffs to a deprivation of their constitutional right to an impartial tribunal.”

Caputo said he would make a determination of damages “at a later date.”

According to Caputo, Ciavarella and Conahan took steps to ensure that the county-run juvenile detention facility on River Street in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., closed down, paving the way for PACC and WPACC.

“In particular, Ciavarella and Conahan appeared on television in December 2002 to urge the shutdown of the River Street facility,” Caputo said. “Ciavarella also assisted PACC [with hiring] employees from the River Street facility by setting up interviews. As a result, Ciavarella ensured that the River Street facility could not re-open, effectively putting the facility out of business.”

Caputo said that conduct did not fall under any of the functions normally performed by a judge.

Caputo added that Ciavarella’s adoption of a “zero tolerance” policy requiring that any juvenile who violates probation be detained and stripping probation officers of their discretion to informally adjust juveniles’ charges were administrative actions, rather than judicial actions.

Caputo said Ciavarella was likewise not protected by judicial immunity for initially approaching Conahan about bringing people together to build a new detention facility or for connecting the facilities’ eventual builder, Robert K. Mericle, with their eventual co-owner, Robert J. Powell.

According to Caputo, Ciavarella acted outside his judicial office when he took steps to conceal more than $2.7 million he and Conahan received from Powell and Mericle.

“Indeed, Ciavarella sought to conceal the payments because he knew that it would not look good that he was receiving payments from Powell while sending juveniles to his detention facility,” Caputo said.

Caputo said all of those nonjudicial actions “set in motion and/or caused the deprivation of plaintiffs’ right to an impartial tribunal.”

Caputo’s ruling comes less than three months after the plaintiffs in Wallace filed a joint proposal for a $2.5 million settlement with the two juvenile detention centers and Mid-Atlantic Youth Services, the company that ran them.

That agreement came about a year after Mericle settled with the same class for $17.75 million.

In a June 2009 plea agreement, Powell pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony to federal authorities and with being an accessory after the fact to a tax conspiracy, but alleged his involvement in the scheme escalated as the judges forced his hand.

On Dec. 27, 2011, Powell began serving an 18-month sentence in a federal prison in Florida.

Mericle pleaded guilty in August 2009 to failing to disclose knowledge of a crime and is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 26.

Counsel for the plaintiffs, William R. Caroselli of Caroselli, Beachler, McTiernan & Conboy in Pittsburgh, could not be reached for comment on Caputo’s ruling Friday afternoon.

Ciavarella does not have counsel in the case and did not file any brief in opposition to the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment.

Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI.