A disgraced Pennsylvania judge who locked up thousands of juvenile offenders while he was taking kickbacks from the owner and builder of for-profit detention centers is not entitled to judicial immunity and thus liable for damages, a federal judge ruled.
Former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr., who is serving 28 years in prison in connection with the “kids for cash” scandal, acted outside the scope of his judicial authority when he closed a county-run detention center, began accepting the illegal payments and pushed a zero-tolerance policy that guaranteed large numbers of kids would be sent to the privately owned lockups, U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo ruled late Thursday.
The decision covers about 2,500 plaintiffs. Caputo said damages will be determined later, though none of the plaintiffs are likely to see a dime from Ciavarella, who, as a federal inmate, has little ability to pay.
But lawyers for the plaintiffs saw the ruling as a significant legal victory nonetheless, saying Caputo’s determination that Ciavarella’s enactment of zero tolerance was an administrative act and not a judicial one – and thus judicial immunity did not apply – should give pause to judges nationwide.
“We now have a ruling that they can be liable if they are playing the role of administrator and it leads them to adopt policies that cross some sort of legal line,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center and a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
“A judge like Ciavarella could be liable for things they do outside the courtroom that could violate kids’ rights,” she said Friday.
Ciavarella did not contest the plaintiffs’ request for summary judgment in the case.
The ruling came one day after the Obama administration urged the nation’s schools to abandon zero-tolerance policies that officials said rely too heavily on the court system for discipline.
Such policies became popular in the 1990s and often include automatic punishment for offenses such as truancy, smoking or carrying a weapon.
In Luzerne County, Ciavarella eliminated the discretion of juvenile probation officers and ordered detention for a wide range of relatively minor infractions, thus helping to fill the beds of PA Child Care and its sister facility.
Ciavarella sent children as young as 10 to detention, many of them first-time offenders convicted of petty theft and other minor crimes. The judge often ordered youths he had found delinquent to be immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to say goodbye to their families.
Ciavarella was convicted of racketeering and conspiracy, while his former colleague Michael Conahan pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge and was sentenced to more than 17 years. Thousands of juvenile convictions were tossed as a result of the scandal.
The plaintiffs recently reached a $2.5 million settlement with PA Child Care, Western PA Child Care and another company. The builder of the facilities, Robert K. Mericle, agreed in 2011 to pay more than $17 million to the juveniles and their families. Civil claims remain against the detention centers’ former co-owner, Robert Powell, according to Levick.