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August 8, 2011

Should all letters to a sentencing judge in high-profile controversial case be made public?

The question in the title of this post, concerning which I have mixed feelings, is prompted by this local article headlined "Attorney argues for release of Ciavarella sentencing letters."  Here are the details prompting the query:

Letters written to a federal judge concerning the upcoming sentencing of kids-for-cash judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. should be made public, an attorney representing The Citizens’ Voice andThe Scranton Times-Tribune argued in a letter to the court today.

The letters, including character references written on Ciavarella’s behalf and victim-impact statements, should be made available on First Amendment grounds and to satisfy the public’s right of access to judicial records, according to the letter written by attorney Joseph O. Haggerty Jr. on behalf of the newspapers, which are both published by Times-Shamrock Newspapers.  "Access to sentencing letters cannot be denied without a particularized showing that release of those records would cause significant harm," Haggerty wrote in the letter to U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik, who will sentence Ciavarella Thursday on racketeering and other charges.

In a pre-trial conference last month, Kosik told attorneys in the case that he had received 147 letters in regard to Ciavarella, a former Luzerne County Juvenile Court judge found guilty of accepting payments from individuals with ties to two for-profit juvenile detention centers.

On Saturday, one of Ciavarella’s attorneys said his client had decided not to seek character letters on his behalf, fearing adverse publicity for the writers if the letters became public.  The U.S. Attorney’s Office has solicited written victim-impact statements from former defendants in Ciavarella’s courtroom through its website.

Ciavarella is one of more than 30 government officials and contractors prosecuted in a federal corruption probe in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties since January 2009.  Other judges in the U.S. Middle District of Pennsylvania have released similar letters in some of those cases.

I tend to strongly favor public access and transparency on nearly all sentencing matters, but I also fear that potentially important sentencing information may not always be included in the record if all sentencing materials are always subject to public disclosure.  As this article notes, the defendant here apparently was dissuaded from seeking character letters based on fear of adverse publicity for letter-writers.  Perhaps release of materials with some redactions can balance competing consideration in these sorts of cases.

Meanwhile, this new AP article provides in more information on this infamous case as the kids-for-cash judge's sentencing appraoches later this week.  Here are the basics:

Ciavarella faces a maximum of 157 years in prison on charges that also include money laundering and conspiracy, but is more likely to get between 12½ years and 15½ years under federal sentencing guidelines, prosecutors have said.

Long-time readers may recall, as reported in this post, that an original plea deal calling for this defendant to serve just over 7 years in prison was rejected by the district judge.

Related posts from 2009:

August 8, 2011 at 11:12 PM | Permalink


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15 1/2 years would be an obscenity. This man deserves to be executed for these crimes.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 9, 2011 8:38:47 AM

I would not limit it to high profile cases. I can see having some route for redacting some information (although it should be rare to do so), and even then I would require that the general nature of the material be disclosed (for instance financial data) so that an appeal can be made.

And I easily agree with Federalist, hopefully the fact that the original deal was rejected is an indication that the judge intends to vary upwards in a big way. I'm actually somewhat surprised that the existing guidelines don't treat such official corruption much more harshly than it currently does.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 9, 2011 9:39:49 AM

He took people's freedom to line his own pockets under the aegis of the state. He is a loathesome criminal and hopefully will get a sentence where he NEVER sees freedom.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 9, 2011 10:27:15 AM

Dear federalist:

I agree with you for a change. He should be SEVERELY punished, but we should hope for restitution and rehabilitation for his crimes. No one deserves to be crucified for life if there is TRUE restitution, (admits to EVERY ONE of his conflicts of interest, so that remedies can be made). He was an agent of an imperfect state and the state has many charges against it created by an imperfect (publically educated) electorate.

Posted by: albeed | Aug 10, 2011 11:14:24 PM

To be on-topic for this post, the identities of those not in a government position should be redacted for FOI purposes.

Posted by: albeed | Aug 10, 2011 11:18:18 PM

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