Do corrupt judges get their decisions erased?

What happens when a judge is found to be corrupt?

Two Pennsylvania county judges stand accused of sending thousands of teenagers to juvenile prison in exchange for $2.6 million in bribes from the privately run detention facilities. If convicted, the judges could face up to seven years behind bars. But what happens to everyone the allegedly corrupt judges have sentenced over the years? Do they get their convictions overturned?

It depends on the case. Juvenile advocacy groups and personal injury lawyers are already preparing lawsuits to get the judges’ rulings reversed and/or win damages for their clients. Success will depend on whether they can show that the original verdicts were influenced by bribery or were otherwise tainted. For example, many of the teenagers sentenced by the judges supposedly waived their right to a lawyer, which could be a violation of due process. The U.S. Constitution also guarantees an “impartial jury” or tribunal. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has already appointed a senior judge to review every case that the two judges heard during the period in which they allegedly took money—about 5,000 hearings from 2003 to 2006. If that judge determines that a sentence was unfair, he can order a new hearing, petition to clear the youngster’s record, or declare the entire verdict void ab initio.

It’s possible that the courts could throw out every verdict the judges handed down during the period in question. In the early 1990s, a Philadelphia judge learned she had been implicated in a union bribery scandal and agreed to become a government informant. When various defense attorneys learned that the judge had been wearing a wire, they appealed dozens of cases and requested that all of her convictions be voided. Even though the bribery scandal had nothing to do with the cases she was hearing, they argued, her impartiality had been compromised and her decisions were therefore tainted. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed, and everyone was granted a retrial.

Can the victims get monetary compensation? While the teenagers and their families could get money from the judges’ alleged co-conspirators—the owners of the juvenile prisons—the judges themselves won’t have to pay up. Judges have absolute immunity from monetary damages, per the 1980 Supreme Court case Dennis v. Sparks. The rationale is that judges shouldn’t be worried about potential lawsuits when making decisions. But it also protects them from having to pay up when they do something illegal. That said, immunity is limited to “judicial acts”—a judge could still be sued for something that he does outside of his role in the courtroom.

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Explainer thanks Michael Cefalo of Cefalo and Associates, Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center, and Virginia Sloan of the Constitution Project.