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Editorial: Courting disaster

The efforts to reform the Luzerne County courts may not go far enough to rid the legal system of the corrupt culture that has taken root there.

The efforts to reform the Luzerne County courts may not go far enough to rid the legal system of the corrupt culture that has taken root there.

The public is still reeling from details that continue to emerge involving two judges indicted for taking nearly $3 million in kickbacks in return for shipping hundreds teens to private juvenile prisons for minor offenses.

Now, unrelated charges have been lodged against a third judge, Michael T. Toole, 49. Toole faces tax and fraud charges stemming from allegations he sat on a civil case after a plaintiff's lawyer treated him to the use of a house at the Shore.

There are only seven other judges at the tight-knit courthouse. Luzerne voters appear disgusted by the scandal that has seen one third of their judges charged with crimes. One of the judges who merely socialized with the kids-for-cash judges was voted out of office Nov. 3.

The corruption problems don't stop at the courts. Nearly two-dozen people have been ensnared in a broader federal probe of corruption in county government and the local schools, including a scam to sell teaching jobs.

Scranton-based federal prosecutors are busy cleaning house. But it falls to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court - which overseas the judiciary - to restore confidence in a system infested with corrupt judges and a host of enablers.

President Judge Chester B. Muroski took charge earlier this year. He seems to be taking the right steps but is leaving soon. Going forward, an outsider with no ties to the community could provide the independence to bring about real change.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille called for an inquiry by a special investigative commission, which this week heard more shocking testimony about teens jailed for minor offenses, such as making an obscene gesture.

The commission's recommendations aren't due until the spring, and now Muroski is facing the mandatory retirement age at the end of the month.

Former federal prosecutor Peter F. Vaira, in an Inquirer commentary, urged the high court to take direct control of the Luzerne courts. That would "serve notice that the courts are open once again and ready to administer justice without a fix," he argued.

Indeed, what looked like a juvenile-justice scandal centering on two rogue judges is coming to be seen as a deep, systemic rot. In testimony Tuesday in Wilkes-Barre, state Court Administrator Zygmont A. Pines echoed the contention of others that the blame for the kids' being railroaded was shared by judges, lawyers, prosecutors, staff, and county residents who failed to speak up.

There's at least a risk that the situation could get worse before it gets better - or even backslide in a county legal culture that doesn't seem to be taking full responsibility for its inaction.

While the Supreme Court wisely tossed out convictions against 6,500 juveniles who came before indicted former Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., the court also must face the possibility that Toole's cases are also tainted. All of his cases need a thorough review.

The current oversight - along with the very worthy inquiry by the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice - simply may not be enough to restore faith in the judicial system for the people of Luzerne County.