Two former county judges accused of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks to send juveniles to private detention facilities are partially immune from civil lawsuits, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled Friday.
The decision by U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo could make it harder for the people suing former Luzerne County judges Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. to collect damages.
Caputo said Ciavarella will avoid civil consequences for "the vast majority" of his conduct, because much of it occurred inside a courtroom, such as determination of delinquency and sentencing.
He said Conahan largely would not be immune, because his alleged actions were more administrative in nature, such as signing a placement agreement with the detention centers.
The decisions have no bearing on the federal criminal charges that Ciavarella and Conahan are currently facing in what has become known as the kids-for-cash scandal.
Marsha Levick, a lawyer with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, a co-counsel for plaintiffs in the case, said Friday she did not consider the ruling to be a major setback. There are more than 400 named plaintiffs in the case, and lawyers are seeking class-action status.
"I think what's important is the judges remained in the litigation," Levick said. "Conahan is extremely vulnerable because most of what Conahan did with respect to the plaintiffs' allegations, it was all outside the courtroom."
She said the plaintiffs cannot appeal Caputo's decision at this point in the proceedings, although Conahan or Ciavarella can if they want.
Both former judges are representing themselves in the lawsuit, and neither appeared to have a listed home phone number.
Caputo said the case involved principles of judicial independence that date back hundreds of years and are designed to protect judges who make sincere mistakes, uphold the reputation of the courts and meet the need for the court system to render final judgments.
"I am not unmindful of the egregious nature of the alleged conduct presented in this case," Caputo wrote. "This is, however, about the rule of law. It is about the rule of law in the face of popular opinion which would seek a finding directly contrary to the result the rule of law dictates."
At the heart of the lawsuit and criminal case are claims that Ciavarella routinely violated the legal rights of juvenile defendants in his courtroom as part of a conspiracy with Conahan and others to funnel them into privately run detention centers. Authorities say the judges received about $2.8 million in kickbacks as a result.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has voided thousands of juvenile convictions issued by Ciavarella.
The two former judges pleaded guilty in February to honest services fraud and tax evasion in a deal with prosecutors that called for an 87-month sentence. But that plea bargain was voided in August when a federal judge decided the two were not accepting proper responsibility for their deeds.
Ciavarella and Conahan changed their pleas to not guilty, and were later indicted on racketeering charges. They await trial.