AOPC releases annual 'State of the Commonwealth's Courts' report

By Jon Campisi | May 13, 2013

Limited funding and a lack of knowledge.

Limited funding and a lack of knowledge.

These are the two greatest challenges that Pennsylvania courts have to overcome these days, at least in the eyes of Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille.

The jurist who sits at the helm of the highest court in the state made these observations in the annual “State of the Commonwealth’s Courts” report issued late last week.

This year’s report primarily addresses the financial costs relating to operating the judiciary, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which announced the report’s recent release.

The report defines the state court system “by the numbers,” the AOPC stated in a news release,” and includes a survey of the judicial branch’s budget request, financial savings, and “strong” collection of court fines, fees and costs.

It also highlights court programs that can improve lives and save taxpayers money “as justice is pursued,” the release states.

In the wake of the report’s release, Castille, a former Philadelphia District Attorney, took the opportunity to address what he calls a disturbing tendency to blame judicial decisions on the courts themselves, noting that it’s not the judiciary that creates the cases that come before judges, and require time and expense.

“When you hear a court decision with which you disagree, remember these essentials: cases are brought to court, judges don’t create them,” Castille said in a statement. “The judge’s job is to ensure the rights of all parties in a timely proceeding.

“As well, judges’ interpretations of law may differ, but appellate courts serve to further ensure fairness and consistency in application of the law,” Castille continued. “And judges take a solemn oath not to decide cases based on personal or political opinions, least of all on popularity.”

The AOPC noted that no court statewide has had to close or curtail services during the past few financially difficult years, something Castille attributed to “interbranch collaboration,” a strong savings effort by the judiciary, and a recognition of the judicial branch’s crucial function in a democratic society.

“As the American Bar Association so succinctly stated last year, ‘no courts, no justice, no freedom,’” Castille said in his statement.

Pennsylvania’s judiciary is unique among the three branches of state government in that it collects more in fines and fees than it receives from the state’s budget; the courts get one-half of one percent of the annual budget, and more than 90 percent of the judiciary’s expenses are fixed, according to the AOPC.

Court officials have said that while state appropriations during the past six years have totaled $1.7 billion, the state’s criminal court system has brought in about $2.78 billion from fines and fees.

But those dollars, the AOPC stated, typically go toward the funding of state and local general government expenses, not court expenses.

This year’s report also highlights new programs created by the judiciary, such as the recently formed Elder Law Task Force, which is chaired by Justice Debra Todd, and is charged with studying guardianship and elder abuse and neglect issues.

And in the wake of the recent conviction of fellow Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, recently sentenced to three years’ house arrest followed by two years of probation for public corruption, Castille also took the time to address judicial wrongdoing, and its effect on the public’s image of the judiciary.

“Pennsylvania’s more than 1,000 judges are right-minded men and women dedicated to service,” Castille stated. “I am proud of my judicial colleagues and of the important work that many county and state staff provide in support of Pennsylvania’s court system.”

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