Federal judge dismisses civil suits against Pennsylvania judges

[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania dismissed [opinion, PDF] five civil suits Friday against two Luzerne County, PA judges accused of taking kickbacks in exchange for sentencing juveniles to private detention facilities. Judge Richard Caputo ruled that Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella were immune from civil suits for actions they took as judges. Caputo held that § 1983 [text], which provides personal redress for wrongs committed by people acting on behalf of the government, only applies to judges when they act clearly outside of their jurisdiction or when they commit non-judicial acts. Lawyers for the plaintiffs stated that they plan to pursue cases [Scranton Times report] based on non-judicial acts the judges took in executing the scheme.

The judges' alleged actions have provoked calls for change [JURIST commentary] in the judicial system, and have created significant problems for the courts. Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned thousands of cases tried by the two judges, adding to the hundreds convictions of juveniles unrepresented by counsel [JURIST reports] which were overturned in March. The men were indicted in September after withdrawing the guilty pleas [JURIST reports] they entered in February. The withdrawal came after a federal judge rejected their plea agreements, finding that the men did not accept responsibility and that the prison sentences were too lenient [JURIST op-ed]. The two former judges filed a motion to reinstate their agreements, but it was denied, clearing the way for a trial. Robert Powell, the owner of PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care juvenile facilities, has pleaded guilty to paying kickbacks to both Ciavarella and Conahan.

 

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