Allegheny County judges cross county line to ease backlog
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Edward Borkowski settled behind the bench in an ornately decorated courtroom to hear motions and pleas in close to 100 criminal cases — not an uncommon scene for a jurist with a no-nonsense, all-business attitude.
What is uncommon: This courtroom happened to be some 30 miles south of the one in Downtown Pittsburgh where Borkowski typically presides.
Borkowski is among three sitting and one senior judge from Allegheny County Common Pleas Court hearing cases in Washington County. Two judges there retired last year, reducing that county's bench by a third.
“I'm glad to help out,” said Borkowski, who works in Washington on three Fridays a month and has helped with about 300 cases.
Other Pittsburgh-based judges volunteering their services are Michael Dellavecchia, Paul Lutty Jr. and Senior Judge Timothy Patrick O'Reilly — each of whom handles civil cases. Several others have committed to helping but have not yet been assigned cases.
“We would have come to a grinding halt without assistance,” said Debbie O'Dell Seneca, Washington County's president judge.
O'Dell Seneca contacted the state Supreme Court and Allegheny County President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel in December to see what help, if any, her normally six-judge bench could get after the retirements of Paul Pozonsky and Janet Moschetta Bell.
Eight candidates will face off for the two open judgeships in this month's primary, with the winners to run in the November general election.
Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille continues to urge the governor and lawmakers to leave vacant judgeships empty as a way to deal with budget shortfalls, said Art Heinz, spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. During the past three years, the courts have saved about $10 million by not filling court vacancies, he said.
Senior judges often are assigned to courts where they are most needed, but using sitting judges from one county in another is not all that common, Heinz said.
“I'm not aware of any other arrangements like this in the state right now,” he said.
O'Dell Seneca and McDaniel said this is the first time they have seen such cooperation in their careers.
“Usually, each county has enough judges to cover the caseload,” McDaniel said.
The four judges who volunteer still perform their regular duties in Allegheny County, she noted.
“They haven't asked for lighter caseloads,” McDaniel said.
Dellavecchia said his first priority remains Allegheny County work.
“I didn't want trials because I didn't have time for those,” he said. “But I thought if I could help settle cases, I would.”
Washington County, which had 128 civil cases ready for trial, now has fewer than 30, in large part because of the Allegheny County judges' efforts, O'Dell Seneca said.
“They have just been fantastic,” she said.
O'Reilly said he can get to Washington faster from his South Fayette sheep farm than he can get to Downtown Pittsburgh.
“There was a need, and it was convenient for me,” said O'Reilly, who has been on the bench for 18 years. “And I like being a judge. I like working.”
Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.