No frontier justice for judge said to dishonor his robes

Courthouse Kickbacks
Former Luzerne County Court Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., on right.

When he was packing kids off to prison, then-Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. was known for dispensing lightning-fast justice. But now comes word that Ciavarella’s own corruption trial won’t take place until February.

That’s more than two years since federal authorities first charged Ciavarella and the county’s former president judge, Michael T. Conahan, with raking in $2.8 million in kickbacks from two private juvenile-detention facilities.

Call it justice delayed, if not denied.

Conahan, at least, has agreed to plead guilty to a corruption charge. He awaits sentencing, but Ciavarella, 60, now long off the bench, plans to fight the charges in court.

Things would have moved more quickly, but a federal judge last summer rejected the initial guilty pleas from the two men. That restarted the legal process and, while U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik finally was pushing for a November trial, scheduling conflicts and other issues require a delay until 2011, the judge said Thursday.

The irony is that Ciavarella packed off hundreds of kids to the private jails over a five-year period, often following perfunctory hearings that lasted a matter of minutes. Many of the juveniles hadn’t done anything that warranted jail time. One youth’s sentence was set by Ciavarella based on the number of birds perched outside a courtroom window.

It’s a credit to the judicial system, of course, that Ciavarella will be given the due process he’s alleged to have denied so many teens.

Even though Ciavarella’s trial has been delayed, state court officials and Harrisburg lawmakers should not wait to move ahead with implementing key reforms in the juvenile-justice system.

The reforms include boosting public funding to defend indigent juveniles, speeding the appeals process, opening juvenile court hearings, and creating a statewide watchdog for juvenile cases. In addition, the state’s Judicial Conduct Board must be more diligent in probing misconduct by judges.

Those reforms should be well underway even before Ciavarella faces trial.