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Lawyer opposed to CV retrial

He takes issue with judge’s recommendation to overturn a costly verdict against newspaper.

A Lehigh County judge who recommended that a multimillion-dollar verdict be overturned based on the perceived bias of former Judge Mark Ciavarella allowed his disdain for the jurist to color his findings, an attorney for the plaintiff in the case argues in court papers.

Attorney George W. Croner also argues that Judge William Platt allowed improper testimony to be presented and ignored certain other evidence that supported plaintiff Thomas Joseph’s position that the verdict should be upheld.

The arguments are contained in a 50-page document Croner filed Wednesday that seeks to convince the state Supreme Court to reject Platt’s Aug. 3 report that recommended a new trial be granted to The Citizens’ Voice newspaper.

Ciavarella presided over the non-jury defamation trial in 2006 and awarded Joseph $3.5 million. The Supreme Court in April appointed Platt to preside over a special hearing to determine whether a new trial was warranted after attorneys for the newspaper uncovered evidence that the case had been improperly steered to Ciavarella by former Judge Michael Conahan, Ciavarella’s co-defendant in a corruption case.

While acknowledging the gravity of the corruption allegations against Ciavarella and Conahan, Croner said evidence presented at the hearing before Platt in July did not show their alleged misconduct was in any way connected to the Joseph case.

Joseph and his family have done nothing but “pursue justice in a manner prescribed by law,” Croner said.

“If they are to be stripped of their fairly won judgment, the law should require a basis grounded on more than subjective inferences and conjecture transparently spawned by judicial indignation,” Croner says in the court filing.

Croner specifically takes issue with Platt’s decision to permit the testimony of Robert Kulick, a convicted felon who claimed he was told by reputed mobster Billy D’Elia that Conahan had assured D’Elia, a friend of Joseph’s, that there would be a “positive outcome” for Joseph.

Croner maintains the testimony should not have been permitted because the statement was made to a third party, which meant it was “hearsay.” But Platt rejected that argument on technical legal grounds.

Croner also contends Platt gave too much weight to evidence the newspaper presented that indicated Conahan intervened to assign the case to Ciavarella, even though former county Judge Ann Lokuta was assigned to hear civil trials the week in question.

The newspaper had presented the testimony of court employee Ann Burns, who said she made a handwritten note in a court database indicating the case was assigned to Ciavarella as per Conahan’s directive because she “wanted to be protected.”

Croner said Platt ignored evidence he provided that showed Lokuta was assigned to hear only civil cases involving real estate matters, and not the general civil pool, during the time period in question.

“The report selectively presents information drawn from the deposition testimony of Ann Burns. … (It) omits several pertinent facts in the same testimony that directly conflict with the inferences the report draws about the assignment of the trial judge in this case,” Croner says.

Attorneys for The Citizens’ Voice also have the option of filing a response to Platt’s report. That reply had not been filed as of Thursday, according to the court docket sheet.

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