AP NEWS

Appeals court upholds vacating some convictions of ex-judge

March 31, 2019

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) — A federal appeals court upheld a ruling throwing out convictions on some charges for a former northeastern Pennsylvania judge in what prosecutors said were juveniles wrongly sent to detention center.

The three-member 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel agreed Friday with a judge’s decision in January 2018 to vacate racketeering and money laundering conspiracy charges against former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella Jr.

But the panel denied the 69-year-old defendant’s bid to add mail fraud convictions to the list of vacated charges. He argued that jury instructions were flawed in light of a Supreme Court ruling that came after his trial.

Ciavarella was convicted in 2011 of accepting bribes in exchange for ordering kids to a for-profit detention center for a wide range of relatively minor infractions. Sentenced to 28 years, he has denied wrongdoing.

In throwing out convictions on three of the 12 charges, the judge sided with his argument that his attorneys failed to raise a statute of limitations argument. He argued that the conspiracy convictions were based on the 2003 kickbacks alone and not on later fraudulent financial filings, and the judge agreed that jurors probably believed that the racketeering and money-laundering conspiracies ended before 2004.

Federal prosecutors, who had argued for reinstatement of the charges, said Friday they were still reviewing the appeal court’s ruling.

The appeals court rejected Ciavarella’s bid for a new trial on other counts based on a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling clarifying what constitutes a public official’s “official act.” Ciavarella argued that the alleged illegal activity — setting up a meeting with other conspirators and later accepting payments — occurred outside of his role as judge.

“If sentencing hundreds of juvenile offenders to excessive terms of incarceration is not an ‘official act,’ then nothing is,” the appeals court wrote in its opinion.