The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled late Thursday that almost all juvenile delinquency cases heard by an indicted former judge must be thrown out. The ruling means cases heard by former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella from Jan. 1, 2003 to May 31, 2008 are in question for fairness and impartiality.
Ciavarella faces criminal charges that accuse him of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks from owners of private detention centers in exchange for placing juvenile defendants at their facilities, often for minor crimes.
In one reported case, a college-bound high school student served three weeks in juvenile detention for making fun of the school principal on a Web site.
The court said that it "cannot have any confidence that Ciavarella decided any Luzerne County juvenile case fairly and impartially while he labored under the specter of his self-interested dealings with the facilities," and called Ciavarella's actions a "travesty of juvenile justice."
The decision could impact up to 6,500 Pennsylvania youth, whose juvenile detention records will now be erased and their cases dismissed without the possibility of retrial.
Most of the affected youth have already served their time. In Pennsylvania, juvenile criminal records are not automatically expunged when children turn 18, so Thursday's ruling could give thousands of kids a clean slate, said Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia and an attorney for the children. About 100 Pennsylvania children could now be released from juvenile detention or taken off of probation, according to Levick.
"The court's far-reaching order is an exceptional response to the most serious judicial scandal in the history of the United States," Levick told ABC News.
The ruling is the latest stunning development in a story of corruption that first shocked Luzerne County residents in January 2009. Federal prosecutors announced that respected county judges Ciavarella and Michael Conahan had pleaded guilty to tax evasion and honest services fraud. However, their plea deal and relatively light sentence were later rejected by a federal judge who ruled that Ciavarella and Conahan had failed to accept responsibility for their crimes. In fact, Ciavarella had previously told "20/20" that "we would never agree that [the kids' sentencing] was improper."
Now, the two former judges face much more serious federal racketeering, bribery, and extortion charges. All of this is the result of a lengthy investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI. Ciavarella and Conahan have pleaded not guilty.
"They sold their oath of offices to the highest bidders and engaged in ongoing schemes to defraud the public of honest services that were expected from them," Deron Roberts, chief of the FBI's Scranton office, said at a late January news conference announcing the case.
The judges' arrests shed light on a mystery in Luzerne County: Why were so many kids getting sent directly to juvenile detention after seeing Ciavarella in his Wilkes-Barre juvenile court? And why were those kids sent away in such a rush?
Eric Stefanski had never been in trouble before he found himself in front of Ciavarella, who took office in 1996.
"I was 12 years old when I got locked up. I had no clue what to say when he asked me how do I plead," Stefanski told "20/20" correspondent Jim Avila.