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Pennsylvania's court system faces severe cash crunch

HARRISBURG — The state budget crisis may soon force the court system to make dramatic changes.

The courts won't stop trying criminal defendants or prevent litigants from filing new lawsuits. But a letter sent late last month from 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 Legislature and governor determine how much the judiciary gets. That's $305 million a year, and the Rendell administration has proposed maintaining that level for the fiscal year starting July 1.

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

The judiciary says the proposed budget, which the House has passed, 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 continue to be tight. The odds would be against any sort of broad-based tax increase even if this wasn't an election year.

Castille said some legislators recall that the state Supreme Court reinstated a pay raise for the judicial branch after lawmakers had repealed a 2005 law granting higher salaries to themselves, judges and other high-ranking government officials.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 the courts — not the General Assembly or the governor — ought to determine how much that is.

"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.' "

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