SCRANTON – A federal judge will soon decide whether to allow case records for all 6,500 juveniles who appeared before disgraced former Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella to be preserved or only the 400 given the OK last week by the state Supreme Court.
During a hearing Monday morning in U.S District Court in Scranton, attorneys for the Juvenile Law Center argued that the decision by the state’s highest court could prevent the other 6,100 juveniles from pursuing federal civil rights cases against Ciavarella, Luzerne County or others. “What it comes to, and I know it sounds harsh, is the destruction of evidence,” said Marsha Levick, legal director for the Philadelphia-based center.
Ciavarella and former Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Conahan on Monday filed motions to dismiss the four federal lawsuits that have been filed against them, claiming they are entitled to judicial immunity.
That motion had nothing to do with the gist of the arguments taking place four floors above the clerk’s office in the Nealon Federal Building in front of Judge A. Richard Caputo.
Caputo said he was hesitant to step in to what is currently a state case. “Essentially, you’re asking me to do something that runs a little bit contrary to what the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ordered to be done,” Caputo said.
Levick and her colleagues said the situation lends itself to special circumstances.
“It’s the largest judicial scandal in the history of this country. We cannot let evidence be destroyed,” Levick said, adding that she has no doubt that will happen without a favorable ruling.
“If this court doesn’t preserve the records today, they’ll be lost tomorrow,” Levick said.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court approved the recommendations of Berks County Senior Judge Arthur Grim, whom the justices appointed to review juvenile cases handled by Ciavarella between 2003 and 2008. Grim ordered the preservation of one sealed copy of the records of about 400 youths who have sued Ciavarella, Conahan and others.
However, Grim’s order failed to include those juveniles that aren’t part of the litigation but still may be entitled to damages if the case is certified as a class action. Attorneys had wanted those records preserved, saying that without them, the youths’ claims would be difficult to prove.
“People ought to know the whole story,” Juvenile Law Center attorney Dan Segal told Caputo. “Destroying the records will hamper the ability of the court and the public to know what went wrong.”
Caputo took the arguments under advisement but didn’t indicate when a ruling would be made. Levick said she expects one “in about a week or two.”
Caputo wasn’t the only one voicing doubt as to whether he should step in to a case that has been addressed by the state Supreme Court.
Deborah Simon, a lawyer hired by one of Luzerne County’s insurance companies to represent its interests, told Caputo he would be exceeding his authority and “stepping on the toes of the state court” if he ordered the records’ preservation. Luzerne County, named as a defendant in the case, could face additional claims if all 6,500 records are saved.
Levick said the heart of the case is upholding the constitutional rights of those juveniles and their families who were treated without regard for their legal rights by Ciavarella. She said that “if you can preserve 400 records, you can preserve 6,500.”
“Preserve the records and let us see what happened,” Levick implored Caputo.
Earlier this year, federal prosecutors charged Ciavarella and Conahan with taking $2.6 million in payoffs related to the construction of privately owned detention centers and the placement of youths in them. The judges pleaded guilty to fraud and face more than seven years in prison.
The civil lawsuits allege juveniles were routinely denied counsel and that Ciavarella failed to question them to make sure they understood their rights.