Former Luzerne County Judge Ann Lokuta filed a petition in the state Supreme Court on Tuesday attempting to stop the state from putting her judge seat on the May primary election ballot, arguing that she was targeted for removal because she was a “lone voice crying out in the judicial wilderness.”
Lokuta is already appealing the state Court of Judicial Discipline’s Dec. 9 order that removed her from office, and Tuesday’s petition to the state Supreme Court says the recent federal corruption probe in the county changes everything.
It would be “not only disingenuous but outrageous” for the Judicial Conduct Board to argue that her removal would have occurred without the testimony of “admitted felons” Michael Conahan, Mark Ciavarella and William Sharkey, the petition says.
“The entire proceeding against Lokuta, how it was pursued, how it was investigated, how it was tried, and how it was handled, procedurally, is so tainted that nothing less than a complete exoneration or in the alternative a new trial would satisfy justice and due process,” the petition says.
Former president judges Ciavarella and Conahan are awaiting sentencing on their guilty pleas for accepting $2.6 million in kickbacks in exchange for decisions that led to the county’s use of two privately owned juvenile detention centers.
Sharkey, the former court administrator, pleaded guilty on Feb. 17 to stealing $70,000 in illegal gambling proceeds that were supposed to be turned over to the county treasurer.
Lokuta said her removal was an effort by the three men and others under their “control and/or influence” to remove “the lone courthouse whistleblower.”
She said she initiated contact with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI “concerning irregularities that she witnessed” in county judicial operations.
Lokuta tried to bring her cooperation with federal authorities into her trial, but she was limited because she didn’t want to “jeopardize nor prejudice” the federal investigations, the petition said.
The federal investigations for which Lokuta has been providing assistance for years have “come to fruition,” the petition says.
“By virtue of her initially approaching the federal authorities and her continuing cooperation therewith, Lokuta believes she became subject to retribution and retaliation,” the petition says.
The petition also identifies Prothonotary Jill Moran as a “key witness” in the efforts to remove Lokuta. Moran recently signed an agreement with federal prosecutors to resign as prothonotary and provide complete and full cooperation in the courthouse corruption investigation.
Lokuta said Conahan testified during her trial that there was no relationship between him and Ciavarella, but their recent guilty pleas prove that testimony was “obviously false,” the petition said.
“Lokuta should have been given the opportunity to explore these relationships and the effect the same had on the testimony presented by these witnesses, as well as the host of witnesses under their direct control, supervision or influence,” the petition said.
The petition said it is “alleged that Sharkey and Conahan have conspired to reassign cases,” a position she brought up during her trial. She said Conahan’s “multitude of administrative orders, court assignment switches and case switches” caused “dysfunctional operation” in her court.
“When Lokuta attempted to address, in open court, the problems the public was experiencing due to Conahan’s actions, it was Lokuta who was chastised and penalized by the Court of Judicial Discipline,” the petition said.
Lokuta argues in the petition that her seat should remain open until the Supreme Court issues a final order on her appeal because filling the seat would make her appeal rights “meaningless.”
The seat is among three openings on the bench that will be filled in this year’s election. The other two belong to Conahan and President Judge Chester Muroski, who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 in December.
The state’s decision to place Lokuta’s post up for election came as a surprise because it was initially believed the seat might have to remain vacant pending resolution of her appeal.
Pennsylvania Department of State spokesman Kevin Murphy and Governor’s Office spokesman Chuck Ardo have said state attorneys reviewed the law further and have determined the seat can be placed on the ballot.
Murphy, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, has said the department’s office of general counsel said Lokuta’s appeal has no bearing on the election because the Supreme Court did not issue – and Lokuta did not seek – a stay of the order removing her from office.
Murphy has acknowledged the decision could create a difficult situation should the Supreme Court overturn the disciplinary court’s decision and reinstate Lokuta. The county would be left with two judges for one seat.
County officials say they are unsure what would happen if the seat was removed from the ballot because candidates have already started circulating nominating petitions.
The state court’s ruling to remove Lokuta from office came two years after the Judicial Conduct Board filed a misconduct complaint against her in November 2006.
The board alleged Lokuta had abused courthouse staff and attorneys for years.
To see a copy of Lokuta’s petition, visit www.times