Judges seek more funding for Pa. court system

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HARRISBURG -- State judges got in line today with state universities, public school officials and others, urging the Legislature to give them more money than Gov. Tom Corbett has recommended for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille asked for $348 million for 2011-12, considerably more than the $277 million that the governor recommended. That's the same amount the courts are getting this year.

In addition to the $277 million in state funding, the courts will get $24 million from a temporary filing fee of $10 per case. That trims the projected deficit for 2011-12 to $47 million. Such a large deficit, Justice Castille warned, could create serious backlogs in cases, especially in criminal courts and family courts, where the caselog is growing.

Justice Castille said the temporary filing fee began in 2009 and is due to expire in December, so he asked the Legislature to extend it for another two years, or else the courts' red ink, and delays in hearing cases, will be even worse.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," said Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Berks.

The courts' budget has been balanced in the last two years only by transferring millions of dollars from an account intended to upgrade computer technology. But that account will run out in a year or so, which will hurt the ability of law enforcement personnel to find out about criminals' history.

There are now just over 1,000 judges in the state system -- 550 magisterial district judges, 460 Common Pleas judges and 31 in the three appellate courts.

Justice Castille said he intends to trim about 50 district magistrates, but it can't be done quickly. It will be done through attrition, through retirements or deaths or when a current magistrate's six-year term is up. The number of Common Pleas judges can be reduced only through new legislation.

Justice Castille said the courts are always looking to reduce administrative costs, but it's difficult because 83 percent of the costs are salary and benefits for personnel. He said a salary freeze for court personnel (excluding judges) is being considered.

He said he hopes Pennsylvania doesn't have to follow a step taken in New Hampshire, where courts are refusing to take any new civil cases because of a funding crisis.

Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd said the courts "are a bargain" for the state, amounting to only half a percent of the total state budget, and said the courts really need the full $348 million they are asking.



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