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Pa. high court grants hearing to review defamation trial

Exercising rarely used authority, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania yesterday granted a Wilkes-Barre newspaper a hearing to determine whether a new trial should be held in a case in which the paper lost a $3.5 million defamation verdict handed down by a now-disgraced former judge.

Exercising rarely used authority, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania yesterday granted a Wilkes-Barre newspaper a hearing to determine whether a new trial should be held in a case in which the paper lost a $3.5 million defamation verdict handed down by a now-disgraced former judge.

The court used its so-called king's bench power to take control of the case to see whether there were irregularities in the conduct of the original trial, adjudicated in June 2006 without a jury by former Luzerne County Juvenile Court Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr.

The president judge of Lehigh County, William Platt, is being brought in to hear what the newspaper says is new evidence.

"The Supreme Court's exercise of its king's bench power is done very rarely," said L. Stuart Ditzen, spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. "It's done only when the courts sees some issue of great public importance that needs to be addressed."

Along with another former Luzerne County judge, Michael T. Conahan, Ciavarella pleaded guilty in February 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, PA Child Care L.L.C. and Western PA Child Care L.L.C., secure a county contract worth millions of dollars. Ciavarella routinely sentenced children to the centers.

Both judges agreed to spend 87 months in prison. They are free on bond while a federal court considers the plea deal.

In the newspaper case, Ciavarella ruled that the Citizens' Voice, whose parent company is The Scranton Times L.P., defamed businessman Thomas Joseph in articles published in 2001 about federal raids at Joseph's home and business, as well as at the home of jailed mob boss William "Big Billy" D'Elia.

A state appeals court upheld the verdict in September.

In February, the newspaper filed a petition with the Supreme Court saying Conahan, who was then president judge, "steered" the Joseph case to Ciavarella, ignoring usual procedure in which cases are assigned at random.

Also, attorneys for the newspaper said they have evidence that D'Elia and Conahan ate breakfast together twice monthly to talk about cases. The attorneys allege that D'Elia may have asked Conahan to intervene in the defamation case.

D'Elia was arrested for money-laundering one month before the trial began. Joseph has never been charged.

According to the petition, Ciavarella ignored evidence allegedly linking Joseph and D'Elia in a money-laundering scheme.

"The unusual handling of judicial assignment in Joseph v. Scranton Times, the scope and subject of newspaper articles in question, and a cascade of recent revelations regarding corruption in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas strongly suggest the $3.5 million non-jury verdict was fixed," the petition reads.

George Croner, a Philadelphia-based attorney for Joseph and his direct-mail marketing firm, Acumark Inc., said last night that he was "not surprised" by the use of king's bench power in the case, "given the two judges' wrongdoing."

But he added that the newspaper attorney's new allegations are "unsubstantiated."

The attorneys, Croner said, are "trying to piggyback on the unfortunate wrongdoing that these judges engaged in."

Editors at the Citizens' Voice declined to comment last night.

One of their attorneys, Kevin Abbott of Pittsburgh, said, "We're very pleased with the result and we're looking forward to a hearing before Judge Platt."