Did the state's judicial watchdog agency leave hundreds of kids in jeopardy in the Luzerne County kids-for-cash scandal? And could the panel allow rogue judges to remain in power during the next scandal?
In the aftermath of the Luzerne County judicial debacle, the investigative policies of the state Judicial Conduct Board are coming under some well-warranted scrutiny.
The board's job is to prosecute rogue judges before the state's Court of Judicial Discipline, which can then recommend their discipline, including even removal from the bench.
Last week, the state's preeminent court-reform advocacy group - Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts - called on the Judicial Conduct Board to change its go-slow policy with regard to acting on certain judicial allegations.
PMC rightly challenged a Judicial Conduct Board policy under which the panel defers its own probe to an ongoing outside criminal investigation. The board says its policy is designed to assure that its inquiry doesn't derail possible criminal charges. The board reaffirmed its policy this month.
By deferring action on a 2006 tip it received about judicial corruption in the Luzerne County court, though, the Judicial Conduct Board, if nothing else, passed up a chance to come to the aid sooner of hundreds of children railroaded in an alleged $2.8 million racketeering scam run by two former judges.
Certainly, the conduct board wasn't alone in taking a hands-off approach to the scandal. To a large extent, the scheme, in which hundreds of kids were sent to private detention centers that allegedly paid kickbacks to the judges, was able to play out for so long because key players in the legal community failed to speak up.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors took several years before indicting the former judges, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, in 2009.
Had the Judicial Conduct Board moved ahead with its own investigation, there was a chance that Ciavarella - who presided over the juvenile cases - would have been removed from the bench sooner. With that, perhaps dozens and dozens of juveniles could have been spared from having their legal rights violated.
The Judicial Conduct Board may have fewer resources than law enforcement agencies to probe criminal conduct by judges, but, as the court-reform group contends, it has a first-line duty to intervene quickly on "allegations relating to subversion of the judicial role." A criminal probe can always follow.