Share This Page

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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.