WILKES-BARRE – Reversing itself for the second time in less than a month, the state Supreme Court on Friday said it has authorized a judge to preserve the records of all juveniles who appeared before disgraced Judge Mark Ciavarella from 2003 to 2008, not just those of juveniles who are named plaintiffs in two pending federal lawsuits.
In a letter to a federal judge overseeing the civil cases, Zygmont A. Pines, court administrator of Pennsylvania, said the state’s high court took the action based on the recommendation of Senior Berks County Judge Arthur Grim, who was appointed to review Ciavarella’s cases after the judge’s guilty plea in February to corruption charges.
The Supreme Court initially opposed preserving any records. It altered its position on July 22, issuing an order that allowed Grim to retain a copy of the records of the approximately 400 juveniles who have joined in two lawsuits against Ciavarella and others. That order did not protect thousands of other juveniles who may be entitled to have their records expunged, but are not named plaintiffs in the suit.
Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center, argued at a hearing before U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo last week that all records should be preserved. Caputo is presiding over the federal lawsuits.
Levick maintained that destroying the records before the civil cases were resolved would make it nearly impossible to litigate the case. The destruction would also make it difficult for juveniles who are not named plaintiffs to recover damages should the case be certified as a class action.
Levick said Monday it appears the Supreme Court’s letter resolves the issue, but she wants to see the official order that’s entered before deciding whether to withdraw her motion for a preservation order.
Grim was appointed to review Ciavarella’s cases to determine whether juveniles who appeared before him were entitled to have their convictions overturned. The review was ordered based on Ciavarella and former Judge Michael Conahan’s admitted acceptance of more than $2.6 million in kickbacks from the developer and one-time co-owner of two juvenile facilities utilized by the county.
Grim already has ordered the expungement of hundreds of records of juveniles convicted of minor crimes. He is now contemplating how to handle other cases involving more serious offenses.
The expungement order created difficulties for juveniles who are part of a class-action suit and master individual complaint. Those suits seek monetary damages, alleging the juveniles were wrongly incarcerated.
The Supreme Court had initially opposed preserving any of the records, citing concerns that such an order could cause a delay in getting the records expunged. That could impact the rights of juveniles who do not wish to be part of the civil suits but merely want their records erased.
Levick said it’s clear now that a copy of the records can be kept under seal and still permit for the records to be erased from law enforcement databases.
“Judge Grim’s order of July 22 acknowledged that under Pennsylvania law, you could both preserve the records and expunge them. In a way, kids are getting the best of both worlds. Their record is erased from public access, giving them the ability to move forward with their lives. But their record could also be preserved” for the litigation, Levick said.
In his letter to Caputo, Pines said the Supreme Court altered its decision after “careful consideration and out of an abundance of caution.” Pines said the court has directed Grim to issue an order broadening the group of records to include all juveniles. That order had not yet been filed as of late Monday afternoon.