2009-07-30 / Local & State

Juveniles Suing Crooked Pa. Judge Can Keep Records

By Michael Rubinkam ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) - The state Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the preservation of court records of some 400 juveniles who are suing a corrupt judge, but it left out the records of many other young people who are potential plaintiffs, jeopardizing their ability to recover damages, attorneys say.

Lawyers for the juveniles want the high court to save the records of all 6,500 youths who appeared before former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. between 2003 and 2008, not just the ones who are plaintiffs in four lawsuits against him.

The lawyers, in a filing last week, accused the justices of sabotaging the federal claims of children whose constitutional rights were violated by Ciavarella, who was charged this year with taking millions of dollars to put juvenile offenders in privately owned detention centers.

On Wednesday, the high court approved the recommendations of Berks County Senior Judge Arthur Grim, whom the justices appointed in February to review cases handled by Ciavarella. Grim ordered the preservation of one sealed copy of the records of about 400 youths who have sued Ciavarella, another former judge and other defendants.

But Grim's order fails to cover youths who aren't part of the litigation but who may be entitled to damages if the case is certified a class action. Attorneys had wanted those records preserved, too, saying that without them, the youths' claims would be difficult to prove.

"They don't get the protection of the kids who are named (plaintiffs),'' said attorney Dan Segal, calling the order "potentially very damaging to the cases of those unnamed class members.''

The destruction of thousands of records would also prevent the public from learning the full extent of Ciavarella's misconduct, Segal said Wednesday.

"Let's find out the truth and then address it in some way,'' he said.

Ciavarella and former Judge Michael Conahan have pleaded guilty to fraud and face up to seven years in prison. The civil lawsuits against them allege that youths were routinely denied counsel and that Ciavarella failed to question them to make sure they understood their rights, as required by law.

On Monday, lawyers for the youths plan to ask a federal judge who is presiding over the lawsuits to halt the destruction of hundreds or thousands of juvenile court records.

U.S. District Judge Richard Caputo has previously refused to order the records' preservation, saying he was reluctant to interfere with the Supreme Court's "determination to expunge, erase and leave no trace.''

The high court has previously expressed opposition to a broad-based preservation of records, saying that youths who have not joined any of the lawsuits may not want to have their records preserved.

The plaintiffs' attorneys did win one concession from the Supreme Court, which had said previously that any youth who requested copies of their records would not immediately have his or her conviction vacated, meaning it would stay on the juvenile's record at least until the end of the federal lawsuit.

But Grim said that plaintiffs whose records are preserved will still get their convictions vacated and their public records erased, or expunged, "so they could properly respond to any inquiry of an employer, school, or military branch that they had no juvenile record.''

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