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Comment: Judical Misconduct and Immunity from Civil Suit

Student Comment by Candice Deaner, 3L

PA: Judicial Corruption and Immunity

Recently, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, learned a tough lesson in what can happen when judges become corrupt. Former Luzerne County Senior Judge Michael Conahan along with Justice Ciavarella, a juvenile court judge, corruptly and fraudulently "created the potential for an increased number of juvenile offenders to be sent to juvenile detention facilities," federal court documents alleged. Children would be placed in private detention centers, under contract with the court, to increase the head count. In exchange, the two judges would receive kickbacks. The two secretly received more than $2.6 million. In order to accomplish their goals, harsh punishments were given for minor crimes.

Minors charged with nonviolent crimes were often given harsher sentences than what probation officers recommended, court documents say. Hundreds of these children appeared without attorneys. All of this done in order to ensure the judge could send the child to one of the private facilities lining the judges’ pockets.

The judges have been disbarred and have resigned from their elected positions and agreed via plea bargain to serve 87 months in prison. What proves to be more interesting than the criminal portion of the matter, is that fact that they have been held to be IMMUNE from civil suit.

The plaintiffs, led by the Philadelphia Juvenile Law Center, and brought a class action, arguing that neither judge should be granted immunity because their acts were so far outside the norm. The Plaintiffs’ alleged the actions were “so egregious that he was not acting as a judge while he was adjudicating juveniles delinquent and sentencing them.”

In rejecting the Plaintiffs’ allegations, U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo has ruled, in Wallace, et al. v. Powell, et al., that the Judges  are protected by immunity from facing legal action for their courtroom acts. Judge Caputo used both historical principles, as well as public policy in defending his ruling, which he noted would likely be against popular will.

The doctrine of judicial immunity, he wrote, is grounded in the notion that all judgments are final, judicial independence must be protected, sincere judges should be protected from continual legal action and the justice system is to be protected from falling into disrepute. Caputo founded his decision on long held principals of immunity, from the days of Lord Coke, the former chief justice of England, from 400 years ago.

In further rejecting the Plaintiff’s arguments that the degree of corrupt behavior should weigh in the decision to allow a civil suit, Justice Caputo wrote, "the degree of corrupt behavior is not the touchstone of the immunity doctrine’s application." Judges with good intentions, as well as bad intentions are immune from civil suit, and Judge Caputo refused to make a distinct with regard to intent. The test, Caputo said, is an OBJECTIVE not SUBJECTIVE standard, which is whether the alleged action is one that traditionally a judge would perform or that the parties expected would come from the judge in an official capacity.

As for the public policy argument, Judge Caputo said that "Subjecting judges to a determination of the existence of good faith on a case by case basis is not desirable," "It would create chaos and undermine judicial independence. It would eliminate the finality of judgments and destroy public confidence in the judiciary. Every decision by every judge would be subject to attack on the basis that it was not an honest mistake."

Judge Caputo noted that the judges wouldn’t be free from liability entirely. They would be held liable for non judicial actions, such as coercing probation officers. He reiterated his knowledge that the behavior of the judges was egregious in nature, however he stressed his commitment to upholding the 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."

Editors Note: Comments, Please.  

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Posted in: Pennsylvania