When we look at what is going on in the world today, we are appalled by the murderous chaos in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and most of the rest of the world. Freedom and democracy are by far the exception rather than the rule. Even nations with a parliament or a congress are frequently nothing more than rubber stamp democracies.Without question, one of the most crucial components of a democracy is a free and independent court system. Our schools do pitifully little to educate and expose our kids to the jury system and courts, except when they get into trouble. Then it is too late.
This month, the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald D. Castille, issued his report, “State of the Commonwealth Courts 2013, Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System.” The Justice correctly reiterated out a statement by the American Bar Association that “…Without courts, there is no justice and no freedom….” Public misunderstanding of the courts is a malady that can properly be placed at the feet of educators, public officials, lawyers and judges.
Pennsylvania courts are organized into 60 judicial districts in 67 counties. 450 common pleas court judges serve the entire state, with 15 Philadelphia municipal court judges, 533 magistrate district judges, 7 Philadelphia traffic court judges, 9 Commonwealth Court judges, and 15 Superior Court judges, along with 7 Supreme Court justices.
The court of common pleas is where cases are heard before a judge, sometimes with a jury, and a transcript is taken of all proceedings. The facts are determined and initial decisions are made in what is commonly referred to as the court of general jurisdiction. Appeals are taken on questions of law. The entire Pennsylvania court system has a state-funded staff of 726. The staff of the overall Unified Judicial System includes county-paid staff and other elected officials, including county clerks of court, prothonotaries, clerks of orphans’ courts, and staff of county domestic relations and probation offices.
In Pennsylvania, a state of more than 12 million people, 3.4 million cases are processed in Pennsylvania courts in a year. Most of those cases are criminal and family disputes. Personal injury cases, often the bane of the press, represent a tiny minority of cases brought in the Pennsylvania court system.
The state judiciary, a core function of democracy, receives only one-half of 1 percent of the total state budget! That number shocks most people. The state court system is one of the most efficient and parsimonious arms of government ever invented. More than 90 percent of the judiciary expenses are fixed. Judges and courts may have sheriffs and other enforcement personnel, but they do not have an army, navy, air force, or other power options at their disposal. What courts do, generally speaking, must be accepted by the people and typically is.
The judiciary collects far more in fines and fees than it receives in state budget. In the past 6 years, state appropriations have been $1.77 billion, while court collections have amounted to $2.78 billion. Is there any other branch of government that actually makes money for the people? The funds the courts do collect, for the most part, do not flow back to the judiciary, but go largely to state and local government.
The court system is certainly not perfect. There are unfair, corrupt, and poorly trained judges and justices. Even at that, the level of competency, integrity, and efficiency is higher in the court system than in any other arm of government.
The court system tackles some of the most daunting problems of society. The Office of Children and Families in the Courts, led by Justice Max Baer, along with state and local government partners, has reduced the number of dependent and delinquent children in temporary foster care by more than 7,200, or 34%, since 2006. Those children, for the most part, have been placed in permanent family settings, greatly improving their chance to succeed and avoid a criminal life. A benefit of providing permanent homes for these children is the significant financial savings, estimated at $200 million in federal, state and local tax dollars over two years.
Justice Thomas G. Saylor has been involved in continuing education for district judges who dispense so much day to day justice. Problems solved in courts such as drug, alcohol and mental health courts are programs under the leadership of Justice Seamus McCaffery. These problem-solving courts reduce the costs of incarceration substantially.
Pennsylvania’s Legal Aid Network is under severe stress as a result of funding difficulties. The commitment that all people deserve the right to legal representation is sometimes an illusion, especially in the civil courts. Legal aid cases handled between 2011 and 2012 are comprised of family law matters 29.3%, housing issues 27.5%, and numerous other categories which affect people on a day-to-day basis.
The Pennsylvania justice system utilizes in computers on an increasing basis to try to keep costs down. Justice J. Michael Eakin oversees the automation system, where considerable progress has been made.
The Unified Judicial Court System, together with the personnel and lawyers who serve it so loyally, comprise the backbone of freedom and democracy in this country. While we all have plenty of complaints about the justice system, without it we would fall into the same abyss that racks so many other countries. A society without law is a society without rules or morality. We should all take a moment to stop and thank those who give selflessly of themselves to ensure as much justice for all as is possible.
Some of the tasks confronting us in the future:
- Education. People need to understand how the courts work, how the legal system works, and how to make it an even better bargain than it is.
- Funding. Because the court system actually makes money for our government, we must find a way to make the system serve more people. There are simply too many poor, underprivileged and middle class folks who simply cannot afford access to legal services. We must assure that the court system gets back some of the money that it takes in in the way of fines, fees and restitution in order to subsidize legal services where that is necessary.
- Appreciation. We need to have an appreciation for the fact that every constitution in the United States, including the federal constitution, assures a right to trial by jury in both civil and criminal contexts. We seem to have lost respect for the jury system, preferring instead, so-called “dispute resolution,” which is often controlled by wealthy financial interests. Who has not signed a cellphone contract or a credit card agreement giving up the right to sue and the right to trial by jury without even realizing what they have done?
The report of Justice Castille may not be the most riveting reading, but it is a window to a world that very few people know anything about. We must work with the legal court system and its advocates to strengthen our constitutional rights and to assure that freedom and democracy does not become a worn-out phrase whose practice is the exception rather than the rule.
Rieders, Travis, Dohrmann, Mowrey, Humphrey & Waters
161 West Third Street
Williamsport, PA 17701
(570) 323-8711 (telephone)
(570) 323-4192 (facsimile)
Cliff Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. None of the opinions expressed necessarily represent the views of these organizations.