HARRISBURG – Seventeen years after ascending to the highest office any female attorney has held in Luzerne County, Judge is leaving in disgrace, booted from her position by a panel of her peers who railed against her conduct on the bench.
The ruling, issued Tuesday by the state Court of Judicial Discipline, comes two years after a misconduct complaint was filed against Lokuta. It does not end the case, however, as she has vowed to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
The disciplinary court, made up of seven attorneys, deliberated for about two hours before voting 6-1 to impose the most serious sanction within its power. The order removes Lokuta from the judicial seat she has held since 1992 and precludes her from ever again serving as a judge. It does not affect her ability to practice law.
Judge Lawrence O’Toole dissented, saying he would instead suspend Lokuta for one year without pay and direct she serve a three-year probationary period that would be monitored by the Judicial Conduct Board – the agency which filed the charges against Lokuta.
Francis J. Puskas II, chief counsel for the JCB, had sought Lokuta’s removal, arguing her behavior has been a “cancer” to the Luzerne County court system. Any other punishment would “trivialize” her conduct and continue to bring the judiciary into disrepute, Puskas told the court.
“I take no personal pleasure in Judge Lokuta’s downfall, but make no mistake: This court got it right,” Puskas said after the hearing. “I’m happy for the court personnel and attorneys who practice in Luzerne County and who testified before the court. This vindicates what they told the court about Judge Lokuta’s conduct.”
The JCB filed the misconduct complaint against Lokuta in November 2006 after a two-year investigation. The board alleged Lokuta had abused courthouse staff and attorneys for years. She was also accused of numerous other infractions, including using court personnel to do household chores, habitually arriving late for work, falsely accusing a court employee of assault and of issuing biased rulings in two cases.
A three-member panel of the Court of Judicial Discipline heard testimony at the misconduct trial that was held over 12 days in September and December 2007 and January 2008. The full seven-member court issued its findings on Oct. 30. The court later suspended Lokuta with pay pending resolution of the sanctions hearing.
Lokuta declined to comment on the court’s sanctions ruling other than to confirm she will appeal.
Her attorney, Louis Sinatra, said Lokuta knew she was facing an uphill battle, given the scathing, 228-opinion the court rendered in which it found Lokuta’s behavior had brought disrepute to her office and had prejudiced the administration of justice.
Lokuta presented 19 witnesses at the sanctions hearing, including 15 attorneys who currently or previously practiced in Luzerne County. The proceeding, held in the Supreme Court inside the state Capitol Building, lasted about 2 � hours.
Sinatra tried to convince the court to impose a lesser sanction. He told the panel Lokuta would agree to any restrictions it chose to impose if it allowed her to remain on the bench.
While acknowledging Lokuta’s demeanor has been perceived as abrasive, Sinatra said Lokuta also has many strong qualities as well.
He noted the testimony of the attorneys who appeared on Lokuta’s behalf, including William Ruzzo, Joseph Yeager, Charles Coslett and Robert Gonos.
Each of the attorneys said Lokuta had a reputation for being fair, civil, dignified and truthful, that she was deemed by the bar to be extremely knowledgeable about the law and that she was always well prepared.
“In an imperfect world, judges sometime say things they wish they hadn’t or wish their tone had been different,” Sinatra said. “You have heard testimony today that this judge is worth saving.”
A contrite Lokuta also made a brief statement to the court in which she acknowledged her demeanor may have been perceived as abusive. She insisted she never intended to cause anyone pain.
“To say I have been humbled (by this experience) is an understatement,” Lokuta said. “I am troubled by the fact my demeanor inflicted pain, and for that, I apologize.”
Lokuta also told of the personal, financial and professional toll the misconduct case has had on her. She said she has been forced to dip into savings and is now on the verge of bankruptcy.
“I have experienced the greatest embarrassment of my life. Not one day has escaped me where this matter has not ruled over me,” she said.
But Puskas questioned the sincerity of Lokuta’s comments, noting that she had fought the JCB at every step of the way during its investigation. She remained defiant to the end, Puskas said, insisting that the 30 witnesses who testified against her during her misconduct trial were “liars” who conspired to “get” her.
“Up until this hearing, Judge Lokuta has expressed not a modicum ... of acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Even today she speaks only of the embarrassment it has brought her,” Puskas said. “The issue is not whether Judge Lokuta has suffered enough, but whether Judge Lokuta is fit to continue in her station.”
The answer, Puskas said, is an unequivocal “no.”
“Judge Lokuta’s misconduct touched every part of the Luzerne County court operations,” Puskas said. “To send Judge Lokuta back to the bench would condemn these people and the court system to further abuse.”
Some of the judges also indicated they were skeptical that Lokuta’s behavior – described as “judicial bullying” by Judge O’Toole – would cease.
Judge Richard Sprague noted the case against Lokuta was not based on an isolated incident, but on years’ worth of abusive behavior.
“The concern I have is if Judge Lokuta remains on the bench, how do we know that this judicial bullying” will not continue? Sprague asked. “What control exists to protect what needs to be protected?”
Judge William Lamb also indicated he was unconvinced that Lokuta had truly accepted responsibility for her actions.
“This is the longest case ever in the history of the Court of Judicial Discipline. You and she fought them tooth and nail,” Lamb told Sinatra. “I didn’t hear Judge Lokuta say, ‘Darn, I guess I made a mistake. I want this court to understand that it will never, ever, ever happen again.’”
Sinatra said he believed Lokuta did acknowledge she made mistakes. He insisted the misconduct case has changed her.
“Unless she is truly a diabolical person, I think this has changed her,” Sinatra said. “For this not to affect her conduct is almost inconceivable.”
Lokuta has 30 days to file an appeal. Sinatra did not indicate if the appeal with focus on the court’s misconduct ruling, the sanction imposed or both.