President Judge Chester Muroski talks with a reporter about changes he has implemented since taking over the seat.Aimee Dilger/The Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE – When President Judge Chester Muroski took the reins of the battered Luzerne County Court system in February, his mind was focused on two questions, he said.
“How did this happen and can I, with only 11 months to go, do something significant to help the situation?” Muroski will only serve until Dec. 31 because the mandatory judicial retirement age is 70.
Four months into the job Muroski is well on his way to answering the second question. And the state’s top judicial official says that answer is a solid “Yes.”
“They are making positive progress in this unfortunate situation brought on by the two judges,” said Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille. “They seem to be really focused on eliminating the problems and preventing problems in the future with the steps they’ve taken.”
Those problems came to light in January, when then-president Judge Mark Ciavarella and fellow jurist Michael Conahan were charged with accepting kickbacks in exchange for judicial rulings. The judges pleaded guilty in February and are awaiting sentencing.
Muroski, who will retire at the end of this year, said he knew he had to act fast if there was any hope of restoring public confidence in the judiciary.
Working with the county’s seven other sitting judges, he has implemented several procedural and administrative changes that have fundamentally altered how the court operates.
They oversaw the creation of a computerized system to randomly assign cases to judges and revamped the rules regarding motions court and the assignment of neutral arbitrators in uninsured motorist disputes.
Muroski also settled a lawsuit Ciavarella had filed against the county that challenged cuts to court staff, vacated a controversial pay scale for court-appointed attorneys that Ciavarella instituted, significantly altered the Central Court system and brought in an outside mediation agency to help clear a backlog of civil cases.
Those efforts have not gone unnoticed by Castille, who since March has been receiving monthly updates on the court’s progress.
“They are definitely going in the right direction and that will prevent some of the problems we’ve seen. But we still have to deal with the leftover from the disaster created by Conahan and Ciavarella,” Castille said.
That “disaster” was caused in part because the court system entrusted virtually unlimited – and unchecked – power with its president judge, Muroski said.
In addition to controlling the assignments of fellow judges, the president judge was solely responsible for making all court hirings and controlled the court budget.
Ciavarella and Conahan, who immediately preceded Ciavarella as president judge, used that power fully, often making major decisions that affected the entire court system without consulting other judges, Muroski said.
Muroski has fundamentally altered the decision making process. Now virtually all decisions, including hirings, are made by the court en banc, which meets at least every other week.
“We are in a situation now where we are able to exchange ideas freely without reservation and with a degree of collegiality we never enjoyed,” Muroski said.
Castille said all the changes have had a positive impact. But he believes the most significant change was the creation of the system to randomly assign cases to judges.
The system removes the possibility of bias in the assignment of cases – an allegation that was raised by the Citizens’ Voice newspaper in its attempt to overturn a $3.5 million verdict Ciavarella entered against it in a defamation case filed by businessman Thomas Joseph.
The Supreme Court recently returned the Joseph case to county court for a hearing to determine if a new trial should be granted based on recently uncovered evidence that indicates Conahan improperly intervened to steer the case to Ciavarella.
“There have been cases we’ve seen at this level where there were problems in the assignment, which raised questions about fairness,” Castille said. “If the citizens don’t think they can get a fair shake in the court, we’re in trouble.”
Allegations of preferential treatment also prompted the county court to revamp the process used to appoint neutral arbitrators in uninsured motorist cases and to alter rules related to the signing of motions.
Those are significant improvements, but how can the public be sure the system won’t revert back to its old ways in the future?
The key, Muroski said, is answering the first part of his question: How did this happen?
Muroski, a judge for 28 years, said the erosion of the sharing of power within the court system that occurred under Ciavarella’s and Conahan’s tenures as president judge was a gradual one that evolved over time.
“There were little decisions being made without consulting anybody. It went from little decisions to major decisions being made,” he said.
He said current and future judges need to be extra vigilant in monitoring the court system and to bring forward any concerns. That includes observations on the president judge’s performance.
For his part, Muroski said he’s confident the changes he and other judges have implemented have set a strong framework for the future.
“I have established a practice with the court en banc of complete participation by all judges. I think it will be very difficult for any future president judge to revert back to a situation where he, the president judge, would make all decisions,” he said.