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Ex-judges owe us account, apology

EITHER OUT OF arrogance or ignorance, Luzerne County’s corrupt judges haven’t yet realized what they need to do – for their sakes, as well as for the restoration of the county’s tattered juvenile justice system.

It’s nothing less than what society expects of a teenager who has behaved badly and been caught.

First, former judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan need to reflect on their wrongdoing and provide a full explanation of what led to it, who was involved and how it happened. Next, they need to show a little contrition.

They might even resort to this phrase: I’m sorry. (Not, sorry that I got caught up in this mess. But, rather, I am sorry for what I did, whom I hurt and the damage that my actions caused.)

Instead, the public has witnessed mostly stonewalling and bluster from the duo, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to fraud and related charges in connection with a scandal commonly called “kids for cash.” Prosecutors allege that Ciavarella and Conahan, each of whom had served as the county’s president judge, received millions of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for rulings that benefited a privately owned juvenile detention center.

The corruption investigation threw into question the validity of thousands of juvenile cases and, so far, has led to lawsuits involving about 400 of those youths. It also raised doubts about the county court’s operation and fairness, ignited international news coverage and prompted the creation of a special state Commission on Juvenile Justice. The crime’s ultimate financial impact on state and county taxpayers is unknown.

To hear Ciavarella’s version of events, however, you might think he is guilty only of making errors on his tax returns.

Fortunately, two recent court decisions suggest that, in the end, the public might hear the explanations and contrition that are long past due.

Late last week, the state Supreme Court agreed to allow all case records of juveniles who appeared before Ciavarella from 2003 to 2008 to be preserved, reversing its prior stance. It previously had OK’d the preservation of only about 400 records belonging to juveniles who are named as plaintiffs in two lawsuits. Those suits allege that juveniles appearing in Ciavarella’s court were routinely denied legal counsel, a violation of their rights.

The Supreme Court’s most recent announcement means that youths who might file future claims will have their records accessible. The documentation also might help investigators and the public reach a fuller understanding of what went wrong.

Separately, a federal judge in Scranton on Friday rejected the plea agreements of Ciavarella and Conahan, which had called for each man to serve an 87-month prison sentence. The tone of Senior U.S. Judge Edwin M. Kosik’s order suggested that he was displeased at the men’s recent behavior, specifically their failure to accept responsibility.

In short, Kosik wants to hear the same thing from these misguided men as does most everyone in Northeastern Pennsylvania: an explanation. And some heartfelt apologies wouldn’t hurt, either.

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