Westmoreland County courts struggle to clear case backlog

| Saturday, May 3, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

When Westmoreland County President Judge Richard E. McCormick Jr. took the bench on April 28, he was looking at 59 pages listing 295 cases for the May criminal court term.

Three days of hearings determined that 59 cases could go to trial starting on Monday.

Officials expect that two cases actually will go to trial during the weeklong term.

Last year, Westmoreland County held what is believed to be an all-time low of 20 criminal jury trials — a 41 percent decrease from 2012.

The decrease occurs as the number of criminal cases has increased.

Fewer cases have been resolved through a verdict, a guilty plea or entry of a suspect into a diversionary program.

“There is a problem with judicial resources,” Court Administrator Paul Kuntz said.

The county typically has four judges, from its total bench of 11 jurists, assigned to criminal court.

Just two judges will convene criminal trials in May and into the summer.

Since last year, the court has been decimated with the retirements of two judges. In July, criminal court Judge Al Bell will retire.

Judge Debra Pezze has been on an extended sick leave, although she could return to work this year.

By mid-July, McCormick and Judge Rita Hathaway could be the only judges working in the criminal division.

“We're really pressed right now with our personnel,” McCormick said.

There are no plans to fill vacancies on the court through an appointment by Gov. Tom Corbett, a spokesman in his office said on Thursday.

County voters will elect three judges in 2015.

The county could ask for retired judges to fill in and preside over trials, Kuntz said.

Additional weeks could be added to the trial schedule. Kuntz said two judges cannot be moved from the civil court division and three judges cannot be transferred from the family court division because their case loads are too high.

So far, no changes have been implemented. Meanwhile, the criminal courts continue to bog down.

There were 5,210 new cases filed last year, up from 5,013 in 2012. In 2012, the courts disposed of 5,540 cases, compared with 5,467 last year.

At the end of 2013, 2,505 cases were pending, the highest number in five years, according to court administrator records.

Trials are conducted one week every month. Each case on the trial list is called into court a week or two before to assess its readiness.

“What concerns me is with the increase in the number of cases, we could have a large number of untried cases. We could be looking at a bigger problem,” Kuntz said.

McCormick said judges are at the mercy of prosecutors and defense attorneys, who ultimately decide when a case is ready to go.

“We cannot force anybody to dispose of cases more quickly with the judges we have. I would like for the system to go much more efficiently, but the human element screws it up,” McCormick said.

Public defender Wayne McGrew said lawyers are not the problem. He blamed growing caseloads for the slowdown.

The public defender's office last year represented clients in about 3,000 cases.

“There is not a reluctance to take cases to trial. You always try to work out the best result for your client,” McGrew said.

Officials speculated that last year's trial number might have been skewed because several high-profile cases, including two death penalty cases, occupied courtrooms for a month at a time.

Still, the dearth of trials has been reflected in statewide statistics that track juror usage.

According to reports by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, 1.4 percent of all criminal cases were disposed of by jury trials in 2012. In Westmoreland County, just 0.6 percent ended in jury trials.

Statewide, 21 percent of people called to courthouses for jury duty ended up on a panel for a trial at an average cost of $10 per juror.

Westmoreland County fell well below state averages, as it used just 13 percent of prospective jurors at an average cost of $59 per juror. That includes the cost of jurors who are summoned to the courthouse, report for one day of service and are never seated on a panel.

McCormick said the courts are prepared to work overtime.

“I'm here, and I'm ready to go,” he said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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