WILKES-BARRE – A Luzerne County judge said Tuesday he would leave it up to his successors to decide how to retry a $3.5 million defamation case against The Citizens’ Voice newspaper.
President Judge Chester Muroski said there are at least three different ways to have the case retried, including bringing in an out-of-town judge.
Muroski said he would present the case to other county judges and the three new judges who will take the bench in January – William Amesbury, Tina Polacheck-Gartley and Joseph Cosgrove – to determine how they could proceed with the trial since Muroski’s term as a county judge ends at midnight on Dec. 31.
In November, the state Supreme Court overturned the defamation verdict against the Wilkes-Barre newspaper and ordered a new trial.
The high court ruled there was a “pervasive appearance of impropriety” in how the case was assigned to and handled by former county judge Mark Ciavarella.
The newspaper’s appeal stems from a verdict Ciavarella entered in favor of Thomas Joseph after a non-jury trial in 2006. The case centered on a series of articles the newspaper ran in 2001 regarding searches that were conducted at the home and business of Joseph and of reputed area mobster William D’Elia.
The newspaper’s attorneys obtained a statement from Robert Kulick, an associate of D’Elia’s, who claimed D’Elia told him then-President Judge Michael Conahan had assured D’Elia there would be a “positive outcome” for Joseph.
Joseph was never charged with any crime in connection with the searches, and he filed suit against the newspaper, alleging the articles damaged his reputation.
Muroski said on Tuesday that, in addition to bringing in an out-of-town judge, attorneys involved in the case can elect to have a county senior judge hear the case, such as senior Judge Joseph Rehkamp, of Perry County, who now serves Luzerne County; or, a regular county judge can be randomly selected.
Muroski said that with 23 homicide cases pending in the county, they take precedence over any civil case, including the newspaper’s lawsuit.
“There’s no (Supreme Court) mandate that this case gets any special treatment,” Muroski said.
Because there was an issue with how Ciavarella was assigned to the case, Muroski assured attorneys involved that because a randomized computer system has recently been installed at the courthouse, it would be impossible to know which judge would be selected.
Originally, the verdict in the case was upheld by the state Superior Court. Then, attorneys for The Scranton Times, the parent company of The Citizens’ Voice, took another look at the case after the arrests of former judges Conahan and Ciavarella in January on charges they accepted millions of dollars from the owner and builder of two juvenile detention centers.
In February, the attorneys filed a petition with the Supreme Court, asking to review the case based on the new information that showed Conahan allegedly had improperly steered the case to Ciavarella.
The Supreme Court appointed Judge William Platt of Lehigh County to review the case. Platt held a two-day hearing in July and issued a report in August, recommending the verdict be tossed.
Joseph’s attorney, George Croner, said Tuesday he would just hope that the case be expedited, while the newspaper’s attorney, Thomas McGough, said there are several pre-trial matters that need to be ruled on.
Muroski said the new judge assigned in the future would address those matters.