Former Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas Judge Mark Ciavarella was disbarred by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday, the same day his criminal appeal was set to be distributed for conference at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ciavarella, who has served about one-third of a 28-year sentence for his role in the “kids-for-cash” scandal, signed a statement of resignation from the bar Sept. 9 and the justices issued a disbarment order Oct. 1.
Ciavarella was sentenced in 2011 to 28 years’ imprisonment for accepting $2.8 million in kickbacks, along with fellow Judge Michael Conahan, from the builder and former co-owner of a private juvenile detention facility.
When Ciavarella initially appealed his sentence to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, he leveled numerous challenges to the conduct of U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, who oversaw his trial, and alleged various trial and sentencing errors.
The Third Circuit rejected those arguments and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately declined to take up his case in 2014.
Ciavarella, however, began pursuing a new avenue of appeal in 2017, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in McDonnell v. United States. In that case, the high court overturned former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell’s bribery conviction, narrowing the definition of what constitutes an “official act” done for payment or a favor.
But the Third Circuit rejected Ciavarella’s McDowell argument as well.
Judge Thomas Ambro wrote in the appeals court’s March 29 opinion that a new trial with McDonnell-specific jury instructions was not warranted.
“Ciavarella’s counsel failed to preserve this claim by challenging the jury instructions at trial, and Ciavarella cannot provide any reason to excuse this procedural default,” Ambro said. “In particular, it is no excuse that he was convicted before McDonnell was decided. Although ‘subsequent legal developments have made counsel’s task easier,’ a McDonnell-style challenge was ‘available’ at the time of Ciavarella’s conviction.”
Ambro added, “Second, Ciavarella’s bribery-related actions still satisfy even a post-McDonnell understanding of ‘official act.’ If sentencing hundreds of juvenile offenders to excessive terms of incarceration is not an ‘official act,’ then nothing is.”
The matter was listed on the U.S. Supreme Court docket as having been distributed for the court’s Oct. 1 conference.
It was unclear whether Ciavarella was represented by counsel in his state disciplinary matter. The attorney representing him in his criminal case, Jennifer Wilson of Philpott Wilson in Duncannon, could not immediately be reached for comment on her client’s disbarment Tuesday evening.