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."
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."
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2 PA Judges Given Partial Immunity
State Had Complaint Against Kids-For-Cash Judges Since 2006