The annual state Supreme Court’s State of the Commonwealth Courts report finds the two biggest issues facing Pennsylvania’s court system are financial shortfalls and misperceptions about the system.
“People don’t seem to understand the role that the courts play,” said Chief Justice of Pennsylvania Ronald Castille. “In our society we’re the place you turn to if you can’t get satisfaction from the Legislature, the executive or your employers. We have to keep the courts open. It’s as simple as that, and it’s a constitutional mandate that we do that.”
But Castille said the role of the judiciary continues to be misunderstood.
“When you hear a court decision with which you disagree, remember these essentials: Cases are brought to court; judges don’t create them,” he said. “The judge’s job is to ensure the rights of all parties in a timely manner.”
Castille emphasized that the courts play a key role in several areas.
“(As) the smallest branch of government, sometimes we’re overlooked, but there are really important things that we do, not only in judging cases but also handling different situations that face us, such as getting 7,000 kids out of foster care,” Castille said.
The report also highlights work done by the state’s problem-solving courts such as the drug, mental illness, DUI and veterans courts. Problem-solving courts are a less costly alternative to incarceration. For example, drug courts save more than $3 for every $1 spent.
Castille said an even more pressing issue is the continued financial struggle of the court system. The judiciary collects more fines and fees than it receives in state funding. Over the past six years, collections from criminal courts have been $2.78 billion. State appropriations over that same time totaled $1.7 billion.
“Pennsylvania’s judiciary is a small part of the state budget,” Castille said. “We receive only one-half of 1 percent of the state budget for the thousand judges who sit throughout the state of Pennsylvania.”
And Castille said there is really no room to cut.
“More than 90 percent of our expenses are fixed," he said. "There’s very little we can do to cut our budget or our expenses. We rely upon the Legislature and executive branch to ensure that we have the ability as a state constitutional branch of government that the courts stay open for the citizens.”