The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court said it would overturn the convictions of hundreds of juveniles sentenced in the midst of the Luzerne County kickback scheme.
Calling it a "first step," the court wielded a little- used proceeding to throw out and expunge the case records of first-time offenders convicted of minor crimes who appeared before Luzerne County Juvenile Court Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. between 2003 and 2008.
In a report to the Court, a specially appointed judge, Arthur E. Grim, said his investigation uncovered "routine deprivation of children's constitutional rights to appear before an impartial tribunal and have an opportunity to be heard."
Today's ruling, which authorizes Grim to overturn the cases, affects as many as 1,200 juveniles, he said. Their cases will be reviewed individually to determine if they meet the court's conditions.
Ciavarella and another former Luzerne County judge, Michael T. Conahan, have pleaded guilty earlier this year to taking $2.6 million in secret payments from the former owner of two juvenile detention centers.
The judges admitted that they helped the centers secure a county contract worth millions of dollars. Ciavarella routinely sentenced children to them.
Both men have agreed to spend 87 months in prison. They are free on bond while a federal judge considers the plea deal.
"We are very pleased that the court has issued this order expunging hundreds of cases of juveniles who suffered at the hands of Ciavarella," said Marsha Levick, legal director for the Philadelphia based Juvenile Law Center, which filed the case.
"We think this is just the beginning," said Levick, who added that Grim has 120 days to make all his recommendations on how to handle the remaining cases.
The ruling is the first good news for juvenile defendants in a sweeping investigation into corruption at the Luzerne County Courthouse that has already netted 4 guilty pleas and prompted the County court clerk to cooperate with federal authorities.
A County probation official, Sandra Brulo, 56, pleaded guilty today to altering a court document in a juvenile case. She's also agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.
The court's ruling also comes more than a month after the high court asked Berks County Judge Arthur E. Grim to review the cases of an estimated 2,500 juveniles Ciavarella sentenced in the county between 2003 and 2008.
Grim moved quickly to select the most pressing cases, including those involving juveniles who were still in detention. Grim made his recommendation to the court on March 13.
The Supreme Court ordered the review after the law center filed a petition alleging that Ciavarella routinely violated the rights of juveniles by allowing them to appear before him without counsel. Ciavarella failed to inform defendants of their right to an attorney.
In many cases the juveniles hardly knew they were admitting to crimes, only realizing the gravity of the situation as they were being shackled and taken away to detention centers.
Judge Grim concluded that "a very substantial number of juveniles who appeared without counsel before Judge Ciavarella for delinquency related proceedings did not knowingly and intelligently waive their right to counsel."
The law center, which joined with Philadelphia firm Hangley Aronchick Segal and Pudlin to tackle the case, also alleged that Ciavarella denied the juveniles the right to a fair trial by failing to tell them he was getting payments from the centers where he sent some of them.
A former owner of the detention center has not been charged and is cooperating with federal authorities, they said. The former owner, Robert Powell, said the judge shook him down for payments.
The request was the second time the law center asked the Supreme Court to review cases in Luzerne County.
The court denied the law center's first request, which the center made in 2008.
But after prosecutors announced the charges and plea agreements, the Supreme Court took action, removing the judges from the bench and ordering the review.
The Supreme Court designated Grim as a special master in the case Feb. 11, giving him six months to complete his work.