BY RUTH R. RUSSELL/ A problem festering in the Philadelphia court system for many years is finally beginning to be healed, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille told members of the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges in Hershey in a good-news/bad-news talk recently.
“The fallout from the FBI investigation into Philadelphia’s Traffic Court continues with charges against nine current and former Traffic Court judges, a former court administrator and two businessmen accused of paying off judges or helping clients get tickets fixed,” said Castille.
However, he pointed out, with cooperation between the state legislature, the Governor’s office and the courts, “Legislation was passed that effectively moves the operations of Traffic Court into a division of Municipal Court.
“Soon cases will be heard by hearing officers, and we expect a curtailing of the illegal practices that for years have created two tracks of justice in Traffic Court,” he added.
Continuing the good-news/bad-news theme, the Chief reported construction of this city’s new Family Court building is progressing well.
“Completion is scheduled for June 2014, and it will be a tremendous improvement for the very-vulnerable people who are served in that setting,” said Castille.
Also good news is that reforms in Philadelphia’s criminal courts are continuing and making a difference.
As examples, the Chief noted, “More cases are being adjudicated on their merits earlier in the process with fewer listings,” and “indicting grand juries have been authorized to address the serious problem of witness intimidation.”
Also, at present there is an Elder Law Task Force formed by the Supreme Court to study the “growing problems involved in guardianship, abuse and neglect and access to justice.”
Castille stated, “This is important as Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the nation in percentage of people 65 and older … a number that is projected to continue to increase substantially through the year 2020.”
Back to the bad news theme is the budget for the courts. The state budget was signed late at night on Jun. 30, and once again the judiciary was “short-funded.” Although the Legislature gave the judiciary a 3% increase over last year, a larger increase than it gave itself, “it is short of our requested needs, and we’re still analyzing the impact,” Castille said.
In the meantime, the policy of not filling judicial vacancies will continue. Eighty-five percent of court costs are for personnel and staffing levels which are not high and have remained flat for many years. Castille was obviously annoyed as he contrasted this lack of money with the amount brought in by the courts. “Pennsylvania’s criminal courts alone collect more in fines, fees, costs and restitution annually than is spent in the state judicial appropriation. In the past six years the courts’ state appropriation totaled $1.77 billion while collections exceeded $2.78 billion.”
Meanwhile, court unification will continue and this should add to efficiency and save money.
Castille said he has issued a final update on the statewide revamping of the court rules and practices based on the Interbank of Juvenile Justice. Included is the requirement that juveniles have an attorney present during proceedings, and that the use of restraints on a juvenile be prohibited unless it is for the safety of court personnel and the juvenile.
In concluding, the Chief noted online court collections have become popular and have topped the $100 million mark, and reminded the judges that there will numerous judicial retentions and elections this fall. He thanked them all for their dedicated service.
Nearly 300 judges from across Pennsylvania took part in sessions at the conference. Topics included “Lost in Interpretation: Language Access in the Pennsylvania Courts”, “Mental Health Issues Presented by the Litigants”, “Shaking Up the Family Tree” and “Medical Malpractice”.
Philadelphians attending included Judges Jacqueline F. Allen, Diana L. Anhalt, Mark I. Bernstein, Gwendolyn N. Bright, Genece E. Brinkley, Joan A. Brown, Ann M. Butchart, Sandy L. V. Byrd, Linda A. Carpenter, Ellen H. Ceisler, Ida K. Chen, Denis P. Cohen, Amanda Cooperman, Charles J. Cunningham III, Pamela Pryor Dembe, Ramy I. Djerassi, Kevin M. Dougherty, Alice Beck Dubow, Lori A. Dumas, Charles A. Ehrlich, Angelo J. Foglietta, Holly J. Ford, Idee C. Fox, Jonathan Q. Irvine, Elizabeth Jackson, D. Webster Keogh, Gerard A. Kosinski, Marlene F. Lachman, James Murray Lynn, William J. Manfredi, Frederica A. Massiah-Jackson, Robert J. Matthews, Barbara A. McDermott, Patricia A. McInerney, Maria C. McLaughlin, Jeffrey P. Minehart, Margaret T. Murphy, Arnold L. New, Joseph D. O’Keefe, Walter J. Olszewski, George W. Overton, Paul P. Panepinto, Paula A. Patrick, Doris A. Pechkurow, Kenneth J. Powell Jr., Lisa M. Rau, Robert J. Rebstock, Shelley Robins New, Rosalyn K. Robinson, Edward E. Russell, M. Teresa Sarmina, Susan I. Schulman, Dawn A. Segal, Lisette Shirdan-Harris, Karen Shreeves-Johns, Gregory E. Smith, Albert John Snite Jr., Diane R. Thompson, Leon W. Tucker, Donna M. Woelpper, Sheila A. Woods-Skipper, Edward C. Wright, Nina N. Wright Padilla and Judge John Milton Younge.