Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll



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Ballard Spahr (96)


The defendant was a 16-year-old girl who had been caught with less than a third of a gram of marijuana. In many juvenile courts she might have gotten off with a warning and some community service. Instead, in juvenile court in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, Judge Mark Ciavarella sentenced the girl—during what her parents later The Am Law Pro Bono 100described as a 90-second hearing—to two weeks in juvenile detention.

Philadelphia's Juvenile Law Center referred the girl's case to Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, where associate Amy Shellhammer, a former public defender, began representing her pro bono in May 2008. Shellhammer and her colleagues found the sentence shocking.

"Juveniles are one of the most vulnerable sections of the society, and it was egregious on the part of the criminal justice system to summarily send a minor with no criminal record to detention," Shellhammer says. "We were upset about it."

But it was an all-too-typical case in Luzerne County juvenile court, where a higher-than-average number of juveniles were appearing in court without counsel and being sent into detention. A full explanation didn't emerge until this year, when Ciavarella and a second judge pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2.6 million in kickbacks for placing juveniles in a private detention facility reportedly owned by one of their associates. Ciavarella was sentenced to more than seven years in prison, and now faces a class action lawsuit filed by juveniles who claim that they were wrongly convicted. Ciavarella attorney William Ruzzo of Kingston, Pennsylvania, declined to comment.

By the time the scandal came to light, Ballard Spahr had already expunged its young client's criminal record. In May 2008 Shellhammer filed a successful habeas corpus petition in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas to vacate the prior judgment, and the matter was listed for a new trial. It was ultimately dismissed in July 2008 without an adjudication of delinquency.

Shellhammer says that Ballard Spahr can't take any credit for exposing the scandal. Still, it wasn't hard to see that there was something suspicious going on in Luzerne County. "While our case was pending, there seemed to be a new article about the suspected corruption almost every day," she says. "The local papers up there did an excellent job of shining a light on this issue. By the time our case was over, we knew that there was an ongoing federal investigation centered around Judge Ciavarella and his handling of juvenile cases."

—Priti Patnaik | July 1, 2009

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