The Cost Of Silence
Daniel Segal is a Wexner Heritage Alumnus from Philadelphia. Dan is an attorney at the firm of Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin and is a member of the International Board of the New Israel Fund. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
I have spent most of my career as a lawyer focused on commercial litigation, representing clients in their business disputes. However, I have spent the last ten months professionally involved in something entirely different – an endeavor that has been saddening and emotionally taxing but also immensely gratifying.
In February of this year, I took on the representation of a class of approximately 5,000 juveniles who are victims of one of the worst judicial scandals in American history. In brief, a juvenile court judge in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, took millions of dollars in kickbacks from the owners and builders of two private juvenile detention facilities who stood to profit from maximizing the “occupancy rate” of the facilities. In return, the judge insured that the facilities were full by routinely sentencing children to the facilities for the most minor of infractions. For example, he sentenced one 16 year old to two months at one of the facilities for “giving a police officer the finger” and a 13 year old to eight months for being involved in a routine school-yard scuffle. To “keep the process moving,” almost like an assembly line, he regularly allowed children to be tried without counsel and accepted and encouraged guilty pleas from children without any explanation to them of the consequences of such a plea. And, needless to say, the judge did all this without disclosing that he was being paid millions of dollars to do so.
What is most striking to me in this saga is not that the judge was corrupt; corrupt judges are regrettably an occasional and perhaps inevitable part of the judicial landscape. It is not even that the victims were children; again, regrettably, whether in areas of healthcare, social welfare, public education or elsewhere, children are sadly often the innocent ones who suffer most in our society.
No, what is most shocking to me about this scandal is how long it continued. For no less than five years, the judge, while accepting kickbacks, was day after day denying the most basic of constitutional rights to children appearing before him – a total of approximately 5,000 children. And, while juvenile courts, for understandable confidentiality reasons are closed to the public, there were other persons in the courtroom – probation officers, district attorneys, public defenders – who could have spoken up. Shockingly, they remained uniformly silent, allowing the violations to occur year after year and the victims to add up, child after child.
In representing these children in a federal lawsuit to recover damages from the judge and the owners and builders of the facilities, I have repeatedly asked myself and been asked by others, “Why didn’t any of the other people in the courtroom speak up? How could they remain silent?”
I have found no satisfactory answer. I only know that if they had spoken up years ago, the unprecedented scope and magnitude of this tragic scandal and the damage it has caused could have been avoided.
In my reflections on the silence of those who should have spoken, the direction from Deuteronomy, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” “justice, justice shalt thou pursue,” has taken on new meaning for me. The injunction is not simply a passive instruction to be just – it is a mandate to actively pursue justice. That duty means that we have an obligation to speak up when we see injustice around us and to actively pursue a remedy for it. As graphically reflected in Luzerne County, the failure to do so risks adding to and prolonging the suffering of victims. Whatever the context – personal relations, domestic politics, Israel – pursuing justice and refusing to ignore or walk away from injustice is our sacred duty.