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Erie Lawyers Luzerne County Judge Pleads Guilty

November 3, 2010, Erie, PA — In a sad footnote to the long tale of judicial corruption in Luzerne County, Judge Michael Toole pled guilty yesterday to accepting the use of a beach house in exchange for helping a lawyer win an arbitration. The plea comes at the end of a series of criminal investigations and guilty pleas from multiple Luzerne County judges who, among other crimes, conspired with the private operator of a juvenile detention center to place accused children in the privately run prison in exchange for millions of dollars.

The challenge for our branch of government is to understand how this happened; to determine whether judicial abuses are happening elsewhere in our Commonwealth; and to fix the problems that allow this to happen.

The lack of definition of judicial power is at least one of the problems that led to the Luzerne corruption scandal. When judges act without clear authority for the exercise of power and definite criteria for its application, they are little more than tyrants. It is only the rule of law that can empower judges. For that matter, it is only law that ought to give power to lawyers. Our power ought not to be in our capacity to drag our opponents through expensive and uncertain litigation but rather in our knowledge of the rules that govern our society and our privilege of accessing the specific power of the courts to enforce those rules.

It also bears noting that cowardice likely played a role in the Luzerne County fiasco. It is now widely understood that local lawyers had known or suspected for years that the guilty judges of Luzerne County were corrupt. Local lawyers, however, largely shied away from addressing the allegations directly. It’s easy to understand why these lawyers acted as they did. Attacking a judge is almost never a good idea for a lawyer. Even when a judge is plainly guilty of wrongdoing, the first lawyer to attack a judge often suffers mightily for it as the power and contacts of the judge easily insulate him or her from such individual attacks by sanctioning and marginalizing the lawyer who dares to accuse a sitting judge. But cowardice is always easy to understand. That doesn’t mean we should accept it.

Lawyers must recognize and act on our duty to report an incompetent or corrupt judge and to take action to address the problem of such judges directly when our client’s interests are at stake.

The Luzerne County corruption scandal involves systemic issues more complex than lack of definition and cowardice, but these two issues seem to me to present the most immediate problems that require specific and immediate attention.

As an Erie lawyer who has practiced in most of the counties of Northwest Pennsylvania and who has practiced in other states and even other nations, I know firsthand that Northwest Pennsylvania has some of the best judges in the land. But no geographic area is immune from incompetence, corruption or even simple tyranny. Only by taking careful steps to minimize the systemic problems that allow such abuse and by being vigilant in personally opposing such abuse can lawyers and judges assure themselves that the Luzerne example is not repeated elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

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