Mass Law Blog

The Face of Evil May Be Behind The Judge’s Bench

by | Feb 13, 2009

Judge: Miss West, are you trying to show contempt for this court?’
Mae West: On the contrary, your Honor, I was doin’ my best to conceal it.’
(During a trial in which she was accused of indecency on stage)

“The thing to fear is not the law, but the judge”
Russian Proverb

“One bad apple ruins the barrel”


History is replete with judges who are open to bribery, who serve special interests or who are otherwise corrupt.  We often read of judges who are sanctioned or prosecuted for misconduct. When a person dons a judge’s robe her character and values don’t change.

Despite the long history of judicial misconduct, I still was surprised to read about this kickback scheme in the February 13, 2009 New York Times. Quoting excerpts from the article:

[O]n Thursday . . . judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., and a colleague, [judge] Michael T. Conahan, appeared in federal court in Scranton, Pa., to plead guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers run by PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care. . . .

While prosecutors say that Judge Conahan, 56, secured contracts for the two centers to house juvenile offenders, Judge Ciavarella, 58, was the one who carried out the sentencing to keep the centers filled.

Senior Judge Arthur E. Grim . . . was appointed by the State Supreme Court this week to determine what should be done with the estimated 5,000 juveniles who have been sentenced by Judge Ciavarella since the scheme started in 2003. Many of them were first-time offenders and some remain in detention. . . .

If the court agrees to the plea agreement, both judges will serve 87 months in federal prison and resign from the bench and bar. They are expected to be sentenced in the next several months. . . .

Prosecutors say the judges tried to conceal the kickbacks as payments to a company they control in Florida.

I’m surprised by how often clients ask me whether judges in Massachusetts are on the up-and-up. I answer that they are, and with rare exceptions I believe that to be true. These clients are businesspeople involved in civil cases, not alleged criminals. Yet, they approach the civil courts with a degree of suspicion and mistrust that sometimes is alarming. It’s not unusual for a client to imply that a judge might be “bought off” by someone on the other side of the case, of just ask openly if this happens.

Directly or indirectly, millions of people will hear about these two Pennsylvania judges. Their crimes will become part of permanent the fabric of the U.S. legal system. The message is far worse than simply “some judges can be bought.” The message is that on their own initiative, some judges will use their position of power to enrich themselves, even if it causes enormous and lasting harm to the people (in this case minors), who appear before them. Judges everywhere in the United States are diminished by this scandal.