Pennsylvania justices reject effort to fund courts

Say cooperation key to 'unified system'

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Cooperation between Pennsylvania legislators and county judges, and not more court orders, offers the best opportunity for eventually creating a "unified judicial system," the state Supreme Court said.

In a ruling Wednesday, the court turned down the latest effort, led by Allegheny County, to force the state to provide full funding for all court services and employees. County courts are at present paid for with a combination of state and locally raised dollars.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he was disappointed with the court's decision, but the county had not been counting on additional money from the state Legislature to help cover judicial costs in 2013. "They lose in court, but they still don't pay," he said.

The dispute dates to 1985. Allegheny County commissioners, citing the state constitution, had sought a judicial order directing the state, and not individual counties, to provide operating funds for all levels of the courts.

A divided state Supreme Court upheld the county's position in 1987, but the justices delayed enforcement "to afford the General Assembly an opportunity to enact appropriate funding legislation," according to the latest opinion. Several other court cases followed, and in 1996, a majority of the high court ordered that "the General Assembly enact a funding scheme for the court system on or before January 1, 1998."

Running parallel with the litigation, however, was improving governmental cooperation, the court said. Integration of computer operations and salaries for court administrators into the state budget represented progress in creating a unified system, according to the justices.

Also, timing was not good for shifting all court costs to the state, the justices found, because all branches of government were facing financial problems "as a result of a continuing economic crisis and concomitantly diminished revenues."

"In this context, we believe that the better course is for the further enhancements of the unified judicial system to be a product of inter-branch cooperation," the court said. "We are optimistic that recent progress on budgetary questions will continue."

electionspa - state

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky @post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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