In an unprecedented move, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court yesterday tossed out thousands of juvenile court cases that were "tainted" by an alleged kickback scheme involving a former Luzerne County judge.
The order affects an estimated 6,500 cases handled by then-Judge Mark A. Ciavarella from 2003 through mid-2008. Only about 100 remain eligible to be retried, and those final cases also could end up being thrown out if the Luzerne County district attorney decides not to proceed.
"The court's far-reaching order is an exceptional response to the most serious judicial scandal in the history of the United States," said Marsha Levick, legal director of the Juvenile Law Center, which led the fight to overturn the cases.
"It's fair to say this is unprecedented and a good day for justice in Pennsylvania."
Hillary Transue, 18, whose juvenile case triggered the legal action that went all the way to the Supreme Court, said she jumped and screamed when she heard the news.
"It's the most phenomenal experience in the entire world," said Transue, who now attends college. "I feel everyone was completely vindicated."
After a 2007 hearing that lasted less than a minute, Ciavarella ordered Transue to serve three months at a wilderness camp for lampooning a school administrator on MySpace. She returned home after a month when her mother contacted the Juvenile Law Center for help.
Her mother, Laurene Transue, said she was "elated."
"To know that justice has been served is incredible," she continued. "I think she's learned that you can trust authority . . . that there is justice and there is also evil in the world."
In Ciavarella's courtroom, juvenile justice was dispensed quickly, often within minutes and without benefit of counsel for the children.
Ciavarella and former Judge Michael T. Conahan are accused of collecting a total of $2.6 million over seven years from a former owner of two for-profit detention centers - one in Luzerne County and the other in Butler County - and their developer.
The ex-judges allegedly helped the detention centers obtain $58 million in contracts, suppressed a critical audit of one of the centers, and closed a competing county-run detention center.
The judges had entered into plea agreements with federal prosecutors, but a federal judge this summer rejected the deals. They withdrew their guilty pleas and were indicted again.
The state Supreme Court in February appointed Berks County Senior Judge Arthur Grim to review Ciavarella's cases.
Grim determined that all juvenile adjudications and consent decrees entered by Ciavarella between Jan. 1, 2003, and May 31, 2008, were "tainted," the Supreme Court said in its ruling.
In March, about 800 of those cases were overturned by the high court.
"Judge Grim refers to the 'pall' that was cast over all juvenile matters presided over by Ciavarella, given his financial interest, and his conduct in cases where juveniles proceeded without counsel," yesterday's ruling says.
"We fully agree that, given the nature and extent of the taint, this Court simply cannot have confidence that any juvenile matter adjudicated by Ciavarella during this period was tried in a fair and impartial manner."
Barry H. Dyller, one of the lawyers representing the juveniles - many now adults - said he hoped that the remaining cases also would be dropped.
Addressing the scope of the high court's ruling and the nature of the scandal, Dyller said: "I've never seen anything like this, and I hope to never see anything like this again."
Levick said the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center would participate in reviews of the remaining cases that could be subject to retrials. The center also has a pending civil case.
Hillary Transue said that Ciavarella was well-known in her small town and that people had told her it was hopeless to proceed against a powerful judge.
The Transue case led the Juvenile Law Center to Jessica Van Reeth, who also was ordered by Ciavarella to serve three months at a wilderness camp. Her father, Jack Van Reeth, said he was thrilled with the high court's action.
Jessica Van Reeth, of Mountain Top, was caught with a lighter and a marijuana pipe when she was 16. Her sentence came after a 90-second hearing, and despite the recommendation of a Juvenile Court officer, who recommended probation due to Jessica's good grades and lack of a prior record.
Jack Van Reeth said his daughter is now a sophomore at Luzerne County Community College. She is on the dean's list and planning a career in criminal justice.
Read the state Supreme Court's order via http://go.philly.