First Posted: 2/28/2014
Today could bring make-it or break-it news for disgraced ex-judge Mark A. Ciavarella, as he waits to learn whether the U.S. Supreme Court will hear an appeal of his federal corruption conviction. But Ciavarella’s petition is not the only high-profile Luzerne County case vying for consideration before the nation’s top court.
We may also see news today about whether the justices will hear the city of Hazleton’s arguments in defense of its illegal immigration ordinances.
Both cases were scheduled for discussion during a private conference among the justices on Friday. According to information provided by the court, cases appearing on a Friday conference list “may reasonably be expected to appear” on the following Monday’s order list — the announcement of dispositions in pending cases.
That is not always the case, however. Hazleton’s petition has already suffered one delay, for example: It was scheduled for discussion at the justices’ Feb. 21 conference, then bumped back a week.
Two big cases
Ciavarella’s downfall and the Hazleton ordinance battle both put Luzerne County in the headlines across America and internationally.
The former Luzerne County judge has perhaps been in the news more frequently — and certainly more recently — as the judicial scandal of which he was a part was examined in the newly released non-fiction film, “Kids for Cash.” Also, settlements with juveniles and their families, as well as continuing legal proceedings for other scandal figures, notably developer Robert Mericle, have kept Ciavarella’s story alive while he awaits the court’s decision.
Turning the clock back a few years before the judicial scandal broke, and it was Hazleton that was attracting the attention of reporters from near and far.
Then-Mayor Lou Barletta vowed to make Hazleton “one of the toughest places in the United States” for illegal immigrants, and was prepared to back up his words with legislation that would prohibit landlords from renting to illegal immigrants and impose fines against any businesses that hire them.
Yet Hazleton’s Illegal Immigration Relief Act and rental registration ordinances have never been enforced. Barletta’s initiatives drew praise and interest from municipal leaders in other states who shared his concerns about the impact of illegal immigration on their communities. But the Hazleton model also drew criticism from opponents who saw the laws as unconstitutional.
Legal action against the city began in July 2006, as the American Civil Liberties Union, representing several Hazleton residents and business owners, filed suit.
Barletta rode a wave of popularity to re-election in 2007, and on his third try the Hazleton Republican defeated incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski in 2010 to represent the 11th District in Congress. Council President Joe Yanuzzi succeeded Barletta as mayor and has continued his fight in defense of the local laws.
In July 2007, U.S. District Judge James M. Munley struck down the ordinances, finding that they interfered with federal immigration law and violated the due process rights of illegal immigrants, landlords and employers.
In September 2010, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Philadelphia upheld Munley’s ruling, and Hazleton took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2011, the justices ordered the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court to reconsider that ruling after the justices in May of that year had upheld an Arizona law, which is similar to the employment provision in Hazleton’s IIRA.
In July of last year, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court declared Hazleton’s ordinances unconstitutional, and Yannuzzi vowed to take the case back to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Often retold in recent months, Ciavarella’s battle seeks review of his corruption conviction and lengthy prison sentence.
In 2009, federal prosecutors charged Ciavarella and former county Judge Michael Conahan with participating in a $2.8 million kickback scheme related to the construction of the PA Child Care facility in Pittston Township and the Western PA Child Care Center in Butler County and the placement of youths in the facilities.
Ciavarella was convicted in 2011 by a federal jury on 12 counts and sentenced to 28 years in what has widely been called the “Kids for Cash” scandal, a label he has repeatedly and vehemently rejected, insisting he never incarcerated children in exchange for money.
Ciavarella’s defense team unsuccessfully appealed his case to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Philadelphia. That panel upheld all but one of the 12 convictions after trial before U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik in February 2011.
Waiting for ‘cert’
In October, defense attorney William Ruzzo and co-counsel Al Flora Jr. filed a petition for a “writ of certiorari” from the U.S. Supreme Court. Commonly dubbed “cert,” certiorari is a writ in which a higher-level court orders a reexamination of a lower court’s action.
Ciavarella and the city of Hazleton are among thousands of litigants who appeal to the court each year seeking such writs that are the last chance they may have at reversing defeat — although, as Hazleton’s case shows, it can be possible for a case to be argued back up to the Supreme Court in certain instances.
Obtaining cert also is a longshot.
The nation’s top court receives about 10,000 such petitions each year, according to its website. Of them, the court grants and hears oral argument for only 75 to 80 cases. And whether the court accepts a case or not, the news of its decision is typically a terse order indicating the decision without reasoning or explanation.
If a petition is granted, the petitioner then has 45 days within which to file a brief on the merits, and the respondent has 35 days within which to file the brief in response, court guidelines state. The petitioner may then file a reply brief up to one week before the date oral argument has been scheduled.