ShareThis Page

Pennsylvania's high court justices among highest paid in nation

Debra Erdley
| Sunday, Aug. 8, 2010

There's a reason why lawyers sometimes refer to the men and women of Pennsylvania's highest court as "The Supremes."

A Tribune-Review analysis finds that the justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court are among the best compensated jurists in the nation. Only two states paid their top judges more than the $186,450 that Pennsylvania annually pays its justices, according to a recent survey by the National Center for State Courts. Pennsylvania's chief justice is paid $191,876 per year.

Pennsylvania's seven justices have more law clerks — five to seven each — than the nine justices of the Supreme Court. What's more, each justice has a taxpayer-funded car lease topping out at $600 a month. Taxpayers pick up the tab for the justices' offices in pricey private buildings close to home.

In all, taxpayers pay in excess of $1 million a year per justice.

Court officials say the logistics of operating the court, the nation's oldest state supreme court, are complicated. The court is a circuit court that sits in three locations — Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia — and there is a scarcity of public space to house justices.

Elsewhere, even some of the largest states have centralized their highest courts.

Top courts in Florida, Texas and Ohio meet in one location and house their justices in the state capital. In Michigan, where the Supreme Court meets in Lansing, justices are provided with offices near their homes, but all moved into state-owned facilities years ago.

In Pennsylvania, members of the low-profile high court panel rarely make news. This summer has been an exception for Chief Justice Ronald Castille and Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

Orie Melvin, 54, of Marshall, a Republican who was elected after a bruising campaign last fall, faces scrutiny as a new Allegheny County grand jury resumes an investigation that led to the indictment of her sisters. Janine Orie, 56, of McCandless, a top aide to the justice, and state Sen. Jane Orie, 48, R-McCandless, are awaiting trial on allegations of illegally diverting state resources to campaigns for the senator and Melvin.

Castille's oversight of an abortive plan to build a family court building in Philadelphia is the focus of a series of critical reports in The Philadelphia Inquirer. The newspaper reported the plan was put on hold, and federal investigators began asking questions after an attorney hired by Castille, 66, of Philadelphia to represent the court teamed up with the developer selected for the $200 million project.

There's no hint of trouble in One Oxford Centre, the Downtown office tower where the court rents office space for Supreme Court Justices Max Baer, 62, of Mt. Lebanon and Debra Todd, 52, of Cranberry for $156,144 and $157,208 a year, respectively.

The tower is Class A office space, among the priciest in the corridor, said Tom McChesney of Grubb & Ellis' Pittsburgh commercial real estate office. McChesney said it's an appropriate address for the justices.

"After all, they're dealing with lawyers from Buchanan & Ingersoll," said McChesney, referring to the law firm housed in One Oxford.

Walls of windows in the suite on the 25th floor provide a view of Pittsburgh's three rivers for Baer and his 10 staffers. He said the administrative office of the courts negotiated the lease. The rules allow each justice to select a location.

"There are no crystal chandeliers. It's not opulent by any means," Baer said on a recent tour. "I wanted a nice building. I wanted food in the building. ... Given our winters, I wanted parking in the building, and the athletic club in the building is nice."

It's a bargain compared to the Center Market Building in Philadelphia, where chambers for Justice Seamus McCaffery, 60, cost $184,202 a year.

On the other hand, Orie Melvin kept the same $72,120-a-year office in the Grant Building, Downtown, that she occupied as a Superior Court judge. She was entitled to move into a larger office.

Court spokesman James Koval said rental rates vary by location and market conditions. The Supreme Court justices' leases range from $18.55 a square foot in Harrisburg to $31.66 a square foot in Pittsburgh.

Justices are permitted about 5,000 square feet of office space — about twice the size of the average single-family home. Offices for the chief justice cannot exceed 6,500 square feet. Only two of the seven jurists, Castille and Justice Thomas Saylor, have leases less than the court's $23-per-square-foot guidelines for Supreme Court rentals.

Taxpayers pay for offices for the judges of Pennsylvania's Commonwealth and Superior appellate courts. Judges of these courts are permitted to locate an office wherever they desire, although the offices are smaller than those for justices.

The 41 appellate jurists on the three courts — 10 are retirees serving at the request of the courts — are scattered in 28 buildings across Pennsylvania. Rents range from $42,000 to $184,000 a year. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia house 22 of those offices. Many of the remainder are in suburban communities surrounding those cities.

With the exception of Superior Court Senior Judge Zoran Popovich, who leases space in the post office in Lewisburg for $13 a square foot, or $42,000 a year, and two Commonwealth Court judges in the new Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg, all of the justices and judges are in private buildings.

Total rental bill: about $3.2 million a year.

That's on top of the court system's $117 million judicial center that opened last year. The nine-story, 439,000-square-foot granite and limestone edifice is located in the middle of Harrisburg's Capitol complex.

But it doesn't house Supreme Court justices or Superior Court judges.

Only Commonwealth Court judges who hear lawsuits involving state and local government are housed there. Most Commonwealth Court judges continue to maintain taxpayer-funded offices close to home. Two Harrisburg area jurists, Commonwealth Court Judges Kevin Brobson and Mary Hannah Leavitt, cut taxpayers a break and opted to maintain offices only in the new state building.

The courts hear cases in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, so taxpayers underwrite the costs of hotels, meals and transportation for jurists, totaling about $380,000 last year.

Shira Goodman, associate director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said the practice of providing appellate court judges with home offices helps encourage candidates from across the state to participate on the courts.

"But how high that cost needs to be is a legitimate question. To the extent that you can have more efficiencies and save money, that is a legitimate question. Are these offices reused when judges retire and new judges take office?" Goodman said.

Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne University School of Law, defends the system. Providing judges with home offices and having them sit in different cities keeps the courts closer to the people and lawyers who practice in them.

"It really makes lawyers feel a lot more comfortable with the profession if they can appear before the court on their own turf. And it's important that lawyers see the justices in their communities," Gormley said.

Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising PA and a frequent court critic, questions the need.

"If the U.S. Supreme Court can meet in one location, and they have a whole country to deal with, it would seem like the lords and ladies of the Pennsylvania court could meet in Harrisburg," Potts said.

He's concerned that the court leases lack transparency.

"At least with the Department of General Services (the state agency that handles real estate for executive agencies), they have to go through something like seeking bids, something where there is some transparency," Potts said.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using 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.