2010-05-20 / Local & State

Budget Crunch Forcing Hard Decisions On Pa. Courts

By Mark Scolforo ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – The state budget crisis may soon force the court system to make some dramatic changes in how it conducts business.

The courts won’t stop trying criminal defendants or prevent litigants from filing new lawsuits. But a letter sent late last month by Chief Justice Ronald Castille to Gov. Ed Rendell said the judiciary was in a “precarious financial position’’ and asked Rendell to stop nominating judges for vacancies as a cost-saving measure.

Keeping about two dozen judgeships open until next year’s elections could save a few million dollars a year, but that will be only a small step toward coping with state funding expected to be far less than what the courts believe they need to maintain operations.

Among the court systems’ other options are cutting positions, slowing the handling of cases or even shutting down some operations one day each week.

The judiciary depends on the Legislature and governor to determine how much it will get, and its funding level is currently $305 million. The Rendell administration has proposed holding that figure at the current level for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

A flat funding level “is much better than other programs and agencies are doing in this environment,’’ said Rendell press secretary Gary Tuma. “Everybody’s taking a hit, everybody’s bearing a share of the pain.’’

The judiciary says the proposed budget – now passed by the House – is about $30 million too low.

Talks over the coming year’s budget will get under way in earnest next month. But all indications are that money will be continue to be very tight. The odds would be against any sort of broadbased tax increase even if this wasn’t an election year – but it is, and agencies across state government will have to make hard choices.

The issue has probably caused more than a few lawmakers to recall how the state Supreme Court reinstated a pay raise for the judicial branch only after lawmakers had repealed the 2005 law that granted higher salaries to themselves, judges and other high-ranking government officials.

Resentment over the pay raise ruling “has lingered since the day we decided the case, and it still lingers, I believe,’’ Castille said. “The Legislature, they’re angry, but a lot of them are gone and it’s water under the dam.’’

Castille said the state constitution requires adequate funding for the court system, and he believes it is the courts – not the General Assembly or the governor – that ought to be determining how much money represents adequate funding.

“All of these elected officials are sworn to uphold the constitution,’’ Castille said. “They want to violate that oath, that’s up to them. They may be paid back during the election process by the citizens.’’

He said county judges will struggle with mounting caseloads while vacancies remain unfilled and there is less money for senior judges to take up the slack.

“When they have a whole judgeship that’s empty for a year and a half, they’re going to realize the situation,’’ Castille said. “Maybe they’ll talk to their legislators and say, ‘Hey, this is a situation you and the governor put us in.’’’

Could that pressure prompt the Legislature to raise taxes or cut other governmental functions to send more money the court’s way? That’s just one of the many reasons to think that this year’s budget process could extend well beyond the July 1 deadline.

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