Cases of judges who pleaded to corruption to be reviewed

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HARRISBURG -- The state Supreme Court has agreed to review all juvenile cases adjudicated in Luzerne County between 2003 and 2008. The decision came after the county's former President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges for accepting $2.6 million to steer children to detention facilities in Luzerne and Butler counties.

The state Supreme Court yesterday exercised a rarely used power to pluck cases from lower courts. Typically cases rise to the Supreme Court only after a series of appeals.

"The court views this matter with grave concern," said Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille.

Former Judge Ciavarella, 58, and former Judge Conahan, 56, are accused of sending children to detention facilities in which the judges had a financial interest. At times, authorities say, they sent juveniles to the centers without attorneys present and despite probation officers' recommendations for release.

In a separate but related case, Judges Ciavarella and Conahan in U.S. District Court in Scranton agreed to plead guilty to accepting $2.6 million to steer children to detention facilities run by Pennsylvania Child Care in Pittston, Luzerne County, and Allegheny Township, Butler County.

The centers are owned by Pittsburgh businessman Greg Zappala. No charges have been filed against Mr. Zappala or his former partner, Luzerne County attorney Robert Powell, who recently sold his share to Mr. Zappala.

Mr. Zappala is the brother of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and son of former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr.

In a 22-page federal indictment that led to the guilty pleas, U.S. Attorney Martin C. Carlson last week also accused the judges of filing false tax returns and lying about their connections with the juvenile facilities in statements of financial interests filed annually with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

That federal indictment was a factor in the Supreme Court's decision to invoke the rarely used King's Bench power to hear the state case, Justice Castille said yesterday. The power allows the court to take up a case for immediate review. It occurs only in cases involving matters of immediate public importance.

Last week the Supreme Court revoked Judge Conahan's certificate, barring him from serving as a senior judge. Mr. Ciavarella resigned Friday as president of the court. His attorney later told Gov. Ed Rendell's office that he did not resign from the bench, only from his position as president, said Chuck Ardo, spokesman for the governor.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 4, 2009) The state Supreme Court has agreed to review all juvenile cases adjudicated in Luzerne County between 2003 and 2008. The decision came after the county's former President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael T. Conahan pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges for accepting $2.6 million to steer children to detention facilities in Luzerne and Butler counties. This story as originally published Feb. 3, 2009 incorrectly said that the judges would stand trial before the Supreme Court.

Tracie Mauriello can be reached at tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141.


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