Pennsylvania newspaper closer to new trial in libel suit

Ahnalese Rushmann | Libel | Quicklink | April 8, 2009

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that a hearing be held "as soon as practically possible" to investigate allegations that a judge was improperly assigned a libel lawsuit against a Pennsylvania newspaper that ended with a $3.5 million libel judgment, The Scranton Times-Tribune reports.

The high court ordered the hearing Tuesday in response to a petition by The Citizens' Voice of Wilkes-Barre, prompted partly by its allegations that a former county judge, Michael T. Conahan, "intervened with the county court administrator" to ensure former County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. would preside over the trial, The Times-Tribune said.

Conahan and Ciavarella have pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2 million in kickbacks from people tied to local juvenile detention centers. The Times-Tribune says Ciavarella's juvenile court rulings are under court-ordered review.

In the November 2006 defamation trial, Ciavarella ruled in businessman Thomas Joseph's favor, ordering The Citizens' Voice and other defendants to pay $3.5 million for defaming Joseph in news stories linking him to an organized crime investigation. The Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld that decision in September. The evidentiary hearing will allow the newspaper to present new factual evidence regarding the alleged court rigging; afterward, the Supreme Court will determine if a new trial is warranted.