Attorneys for former Luzerne County Judge Ann Lokuta took their last chance to return her to the bench, filing a petitionurging the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule lowers courts -- including the state Supreme Court.
“This really is the last opportunity to get somebody to take a serious look at what happened in Judge Lokuta’s case,” attorney George Michak said.
Lokuta was removed from the bench Dec. 9, 2008, by the state Court of Judicial Discipline, ending a 17-year ca reer. That decision followed several weeks of testimony at a trial prosecuted by the state Judicial Conduct Board (JCB) in which Lokuta was portrayed as a courtroom bully.
Lokuta has fought the decision ever since, insisting she had been the victim of a campaign by former county judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, who orchestrated her ouster because she had reported their wrongdoings. Ciavarella was convicted on multiple counts of corruption in February. Conahan has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
Michak said Tuesday’s filing, officially called a “petition for a writ of certiorari,” urges the nation’s highest court to review the case based on three issues:
• Judge Richard Sprague should have recused himself from Lokuta’s trial. An attorney, Sprague had represented attorney Robert Powell in various dealings, creating a conflict of interest. Powell was co-owner of two private juvenile detention centers at the heart of charges against Ciavarella and Conahan. Michak said a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling “laid out” the circumstances in which “due process requires the judge to recuse himself,” and that Sprague’s situation fits that ruling.
• Lokuta was denied due process because the JCB was allowed to amend its complaint after the trial began. Michak said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “once a proceeding like this starts you can’t amend the complaint because the respondent doesn’t have time to prepare a defense.” Michak also noted said that several state supreme courts - including Pennsylvania’s in the Lokuta case - have made rulings that contradict that 2009 decision, and that the U.S. Supreme Court should consider this case as a chance to clarify it’s prior stance.
• The JCB “withheld information from Judge Lokuta during discovery and the trial,” Michak said, “and admitted that certain materials, in particular the investigator’s notes of witness interviews, had been destroyed.” The JCB argued the information must remain confidential under the state Constitution. That conflicts directly with Lokuta’s rights under the U.S. Constitution, Michak said, and he is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve that conflict.
The JCB has 30 days to file a response, though no response is required, Michak said. The Supreme Court would then decide if it will consider the case. Both sides would then submit written and, ultimately, oral arguments.
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