State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Pa. an outlier, with courts staying open

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Aug 8, 2013 9:33 PM
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Pennsylvania courthouses have remained open through the recession due to a number of austerity measures, while other states have had to shutter courthouses in response to dwindling funds.

A 2011 report by the National Center for State Courts found that 42 states had at that point reduced their court budgets, and 23 states had reduced court operating hours.

What is the catalogue of actions that have averted similar closures and scale backs in Pennsylvania? Higher court fees. Moves that essentially institute a hiring freeze for statewide judges and staff. There have also been fortunate end-of-year reimbursements in health care costs. And, due to "the lack of adequate state budgets," the system has dipped into its computer fund for $28 million to cover operational expenses "in a pinch."

"That will ultimately have to be made up," said Jim Koval, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, "because it will adversely affect our computer operations."

Lynn Marks, a court reform advocate, says the tricky thing about judicial branch funding is it's not on people's minds until they need a court.

"Just think of yourself," said Marks. "If you needed to use the court system and you were told either the court was closed on the one day off you had, [or] some courts like to have late hours... and sometimes those late hours have been cancelled."

Pennsylvania has also added a surcharge to certain court fees to help cover operating costs. At least 26 other states have done the same, according to the same NCSC report.

"Philosophically, the court doesn't believe system should be funded by fees - it should be funded by tax dollars because it's a function of government," said Koval. But: "Here was a way it could be done in the short term."

The surcharge is slated to sunset at the end of 2014, though it has been renewed once before by the General Assembly.

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