WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court wrote what almost certainly be the final chapter in former Luzerne County Judge Ann Lokuta’s quest to regain her seat on the bench Monday, denying her petition to hear her case and overturn lower court rulings.
“I think it’s the end of the road,” said Lokuta’s attorney, George Michak. “It may be possible to ask for reconsideration, but I don’t know if we would want to go down that path.” Lokuta did not return calls to her made by The Times Leader.
After nearly three years of vigorously fighting her removal from the bench by the state Court of Judicial Discipline, Lokuta’s battle ended almost as a footnote. On the opening day of this year’s session, the Supreme Court released a litany of cases it would not hear, including a list of well over 1,000 “denied certiorari” without any comment. Lokuta’s case was among them.
Michak said it’s important to note the high court’s refusal to hear the case “doesn’t mean the petition had no merit. It simply means it wasn’t a case the court was going to take. The U.S. Supreme Court can’t fix every mistake and every error made by a lower court.”
Michak also speculated that Lokuta’s petition was filed at a particularly bad time: The court was not in session and such petitions piled up dramatically. “I’m not willing to say that being stuck in that large pool means they do less scrutiny” in deciding which courses to hear, but the huge number of petitions that were denied Monday “certainly demonstrates the difficulty of presenting to the court something that is compelling enough that warrants their attention.”
Lokuta was removed from the bench Dec. 8, 2008, after several weeks of testimony at a trial prosecuted by the state Judicial Conduct Board. Witnesses portrayed her as a courtroom bully; the court determined she had violated courtroom rules.
Lokuta argued she was the victim of an orchestrated revenge from then-judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. Lokuta, the first woman on the Luzerne County bench, said the pair wanted to oust her after she had reported their wrongdoings to the state. Conahan and Ciavarella have since been convicted on federal corruption charges and are serving long prison sentences.
In the petition to have the Supreme Court take the case, Michak argued the judge in Lokuta’s trial had a conflict of interest because he had done legal work as an attorney for Robert Powell, a co-owner of the private juvenile detention center that was at the heart of the cases against Ciavarella and Conahan. He also argued Lokuta was denied due process in her trial, and that key information was withheld from her before and during the trial.
“We’re still confident the grounds we raised in the petition were solid grounds for an appeal,” Michak said. “We’re still confident Judge Lokuta was not afforded a fair trial, and at the very least she should have been given that opportunity before being removed from the bench.
Lokuta, 57, is in the process of opening her own law office, and Michak predicted she “will be very successful.”