Friday, February 27, 2009

The Judiciary on Trial

In Pennsylvania a lawsuit has been brought against two county court judges for allegedly accepting bribes in return for sentencing kids to juvenile detention centers. The judges have pleaded guilty to a federal tax crime of not reporting or paying taxes on income from two juvenile centers but have not been charged with taking bribes. The criminal investigation into other possible offenses continues.

According to the lawsuit, the judges allegedly did not inform children before their courts that they had a right to a lawyer or explain the significance of entering a guilty plea. Juveniles were sentenced to harsh punishments for minor infractions like lying or stealing coins from cars while the judges piled up $2.6 million in payment from the private facilities.

Families of more than 70 juveniles filed the suit and claim that thousands of youth were impacted over years of corrupt sentencing practices.

The state Supreme Court declined to intervene in the lower court rulings even when presented with the numbers of youth not being represented by counsel at a rate of close to ten times the state average. Since the entry of the guilty pleas, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the lawsuit filed by the Juvenile Law Center complaining of the judges' failure to safegaurd the constitutional rights of the juveniles appearing before them.

This case offers a unique opportunity to use current events to teach students about the constitutional rights of minors and the role of judges in the American judicial system.

Step 1:
For background on the case, students should read a news story about the scandal.

Step 2:
Students should use the Interactive Constitution to determine which of the juveniles' constitutional rights were violated.

Step 3:
Students should determine how Judges Ciavarella and Conahan violated the office of the bench by their actions.