A state panel investigating one of the nation's most egregious courtroom scandals issued a call yesterday for improved oversight of judges among dozens of other recommendations meant to strengthen Pennsylvania's juvenile-justice system.
The Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice was created by the Legislature and Gov. Rendell to look into the causes of the "kids-for-cash" scandal at the Luzerne County Courthouse, in northeastern Pennsylvania, and to suggest ways to prevent a recurrence there or elsewhere.
The state Supreme Court tossed thousands of juvenile convictions last year after federal prosecutors charged former judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella with racketeering, accusing them of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks to place youth offenders in for-profit detention centers. Conahan has agreed to plead guilty for his role in the $2.8 million scheme. Ciavarella has maintained his innocence and awaits trial.
In its final report, released yesterday and made available online, the interbranch commission said that corruption in the county courthouse "has been deeply ingrained for many years," and cited a combination of "silence, inaction, inexperience, ignorance, fear of retaliation. Greed, ambition, carelessness."
The panel faulted not only the judges but a court system that allowed them to act with impunity.
"We were all struck by basically the collapse of the rule of law," commission chairman John Cleland said at a news conference in Harrisburg. "We had judges who, if they weren't criminal, were incompetent; we had defense lawyers who didn't perform their functions; we had prosecutors who stood by and abdicated their responsibilities."
The commission's work also revealed failures in state oversight of the court system.
The Judicial Conduct Board, the agency that investigates and prosecutes ethics complaints against Pennsylvania judges, has acknowledged that it mishandled a 2006 complaint that made numerous detailed, well-supported allegations against Conahan and Ciavarella. Neither judge was ever investigated, let alone charged by the board.
"Why the board did not launch an investigation into a complaint containing such serious allegations involving two Luzerne County judges is a matter that caused concern and raised many questions for the interbranch commission," the panel said in its report.
Cleland said the conduct board, which operates under strict confidentiality rules imposed by the state constitution, must operate with less secrecy.
"There's very little accountability, and we think over the long term, that's an issue that needs to be addressed," he said.
The panel's recommendations cover a range of issues, from improving the conduct board to ensuring that juveniles have access to lawyers to reducing or eliminating the use of shackling in juvenile courtrooms.