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Pennsylvania’s chief justice decries lack of state funding

Pennsylvania’s chief justice said on Thursday that a lack of funding for state courts could threaten the administration of justice amid budget shortfalls for both the state and Allegheny County courts, but that does not mean there will be more money.

Gov. Tom Corbett proposed the same funding as last year for the courts — $298.9 million — though state court administrators asked for $328.5 million, leaving an approximate $30 million budget hole for the upcoming fiscal year.

Allegheny County court administrators are cutting budgets in an attempt to plug a $3.5 million hole for 2012 after County Council funded $63.1 million of the county courts’ request of $66.5 million.

Chief Justice Ronald Castille, whose salary was third-highest among chief justices nationwide last year, released a four-page report decrying the effects of tight budgets. He did not directly address Corbett’s proposed budget.

“Across the country, severe funding cuts are crippling the ability of courts nationwide to fulfill their critical role. We join with the American Bar Association this year to bring the fiscal plight of courts across the country to the forefront. As the ABA notes, ‘No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom,'” wrote Castille, who makes $200,993 annually.

Erik Shirk, a spokesman for Corbett, said the courts received a 7.9 percent budget increase last year.

“These are tough economic times, and a lot of state government is seeing budget reductions. They’re getting the same,” Shirk said. “We have to remain committed to spending responsibly.”

Pennsylvania judges and justices are among the top-paid state jurists in the nation, according to the National Center for State Courts’ 2011 salary survey.

The 2011 Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts payroll includes salaries of 1,007 justices, judges and district justices, as well as 1,018 judicial staffers — court administrators, law clerks, staff attorneys and office personnel. Payroll data the courts provided show 591 people, or about 29 percent, are paid more than $100,000 a year.

Common Pleas judges across the state make $169,541 annually. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning makes $171,018 because he’s administrative judge of the criminal division. Judges get automatic cost-of-living adjustments annually.

“You expect good lawyers to become members of the bench, and then expect to pay them whatever,” Manning said. “Law school graduates will start out making more money than I am. I’m not complaining, but that’s the (market).”

Court administrators said they imposed hiring freezes and other cost-saving measures in an attempt to cut costs to plug the budget hole.

Amy Kelchner, spokeswoman for the AOPC, said the courts have taken steps statewide to cut and have saved $26 million over four years. Some magisterial districts were combined; jurists and court employees started contributing 1 percent to health care costs; and several leases and contracts were renegotiated.

Manning said the local courts have been working to save money while reducing the criminal case backlog. The county’s backlog dropped 46 percent from September 2009 (15,233) to December 2011 (8,297).

He attributed that in part to fast-track court programs, specialty courts and the help of senior judges — all of which budget cuts could threaten. Specialty courts help cut recidivism and keep people out of the county jail, which saves money, he said.

“We’ve been hugely effective in finding alternatives to locking people up,” Manning said.


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