Pennsylvania judicial corruption underscores need for independent bench

Pennsylvania judicial corruption underscores need for independent bench

Neel Lalchandani [Staff Member, The Constitution Project]: "Last week, two Pennsylvania judges pled guilty to charges including receiving $2.6 million in bribes from companies running private juvenile detention centers. Although in their guilty plea, they did not admit that they agreed to the bribes in exchange for sentencing teenagers to those facilities, we know that since 2002, the judges sentenced more than 5,000 juveniles, with a number of them incarcerated despite their probation officers' recommendations that they not serve time, and that these numbers were extraordinarily high compared to other areas of the state. Aside from the tragic consequences suffered by the children who were the victims of the unconscionable actions of judges Mark Ciavarella Jr. and Michael Conahan, the actions of these two men raise serious concerns for those who value the essentia role that courts play [PDF file] in our constitutional system. They also illustrate the importance of ensuring adequate legal protections for individuals before a court.

In about half of the cases before Judge Ciavarella, the juveniles waived their constitutional right to have an attorney represent them, apparently often without understanding the consequences of their actions. Hearings often lasted only a minute or two. Those who asked for a lawyer were told they might have to wait weeks, if not months, before one was appointed, and that they would be detained in the meantime. Effective legal counsel would likely have resulted in fuller hearings and fairer sentences, and perhaps would have uncovered the judges' scheme much earlier. Indeed, the Constitution Project's Right to Counsel Committee is dedicated to ensuring that all people have access to effective legal representation in criminal matters, even if they cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Lawyers for these juveniles could have made a world of difference.

Although judicial corruption itself is rare, judicial independence [PDF file] is, in many ways, on the decline in our country. Courts are supposed to decide cases fairly and in accordance with the law and the facts, free from outside pressure. Although in this case the judges' improprieties resulted from bribes and not campaign contributions, the impact is similar. In states with judicial elections, the need for state court judges and candidates to fundraise often casts a long shadow. The conflicts of interest presented when judges have to rule on cases involving their campaign contributions are obvious. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to address this question in its current term.

Thus far, judges Conahan and Ciavarella have pled guilty to income tax evasion and "honest service fraud" charges, which means they took actions to benefit the business in which they had undisclosed financial interests. We do not yet know whether there was a quid pro quo for incarceration in return for compensation, although a class action lawsuit by hundreds of victims may shed some light on this. What we do know is that we must protect the integrity and independence of the judicial system, and the rights of those charged with criminal offenses. Providing good legal representation to criminal defendants is an excellent place to start."

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