The state Supreme Court has rejected a request by the state Association of County Commissioners and 10 counties to order the General Assembly to take legislative action and provide state funding for a centralized, unified judicial system.

The court reached its unanimous decision Wednesday almost three years after it heard arguments in the case.

The court said it could trust that the branches of government would cooperate to decide what local functions of the justice system need to be unified into a centrally funded system.

“We trust in the prospect of further cooperation of the coordinate branches to determine what local court functions are necessary, or wise, to be incorporated within a unified, centrally funded system,” Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said.

The court, however, rejected the request of the General Assembly to overrule its prior decisions that have interpreted the state constitution as requiring a unified judicial system paid for by the state, not the counties.

Under the 1996 decision in Pennsylvania State Association of County Commissioners v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court ordered the appointment of a master to prepare recommendations for implementation of its decision that the General Assembly should fund the judiciary. The court stayed its judgment until the General Assembly enacted funding legislation. Legislators have not done so.

The 1996 decision furthered a 1987 plurality in County of Allegheny v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that funding the judicial system on a county-by-county basis inherently conflicts with the constitutional prescription for a unified judicial system. The constitution states that “the judicial power of the commonwealth shall be vested in a unified judicial system … all courts and justices of the peace and their jurisdiction shall be in this unified judicial system.”

While the counties and the commissioners association requested that the General Assembly be ordered by the higher court to implement further unification of the judiciary from its county-based system along the lines as proposed by former master and Supreme Court Justice Frank J. Montemuro Jr., Castille wrote that Montemuro’s report was never rejected nor adopted by the justices, and “there obviously is some strength to the argument that what record exists now, primarily including the interim report, is outdated.”

Montemuro’s recommendation that court administrators be made into state employees instead of county employees was enacted, but other parts of Montemuro’s recommendation of how the judiciary could be unified were not acted upon, Castille said.

The court seemed to express skepticism that all of Montemuro’s recommendations need to be enacted in order to truly unify the judiciary on a state level.

The chief justice said that, while Montemuro recommended that domestic relations, law libraries, registers of wills, probation and parole and “investigative and diagnostic services” be incorporated into the unified judicial system, “these functions are, to say the least, tangential in the extreme to the functioning of a unified judicial system under the overarching authority of the Supreme Court.”

Castille also wrote that, unlike in 1996, the General Assembly is not stuck in inaction and that “there are unique challenges that all branches of the commonwealth’s government face as a result of a continuing economic crisis and concomitantly diminished revenues.”

Among many other arguments, the General Assembly argued that the court’s precedent is wrong that the state, not the counties, should fund trial courts, and that the constitution requires that the judicial system be administratively unified, not financially unified. An example of administrative unification was the dedication of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center, the General Assembly’s lawyer argued in 2009.

Castille said that, under the doctrines of stare decisis and of the law of the case, the court’s prior decisions that the unified judicial system must be funded by the state should still be upheld.

The law-of-the-case doctrine has the public policy goals of protecting parties’ expectations, ensuring uniformity in court decisions, maintaining consistency within a single case, streamlining administration of justice and bringing litigation to a close, according to Castille’s opinion.

Castille, the only member of the court sitting at the time, had actually dissented to the opinion ordering Montemuro to prepare a report.

“We have no doubt that the court as then constituted fully understood the gravity of the decisions rendered,” Castille said. “We are not inclined, in the enforcement aspect of the same case, to reconsider the initial, fundamental judgment.”

The political climate regarding funding for the functions of the Pennsylvania judiciary that are paid for by state dollars has improved between oral arguments in December 2009 and now.

In a footnote, Castille noted that the judiciary was underfunded by $94 million up until 2011, and that more judgeships were created in the 2009-10 governmental year without funding the positions. “The shortfall was remedied by short-term assessments on judicial filings and a depletion of the court’s judicial automation fund, notwithstanding that the fund was designed as a separate and dedicated stream to ensure the integrity of statewide judicial computer systems,” the chief justice said.

Castille said that collaboration between the branches of government led to the judiciary getting more funding in the 2011-12 “difficult budget year” after years of flat funding, but “the funding was still insufficient to cover basic judicial needs.”

Attorney Jonathan F. Bloom, who argued the case for the General Assembly in December 2009, and Robert Knupp, who argued the case for the counties and the coalition of county commissioners, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Interim Justice Jane Cutler Greenspan heard oral arguments in the case during the last argument session of her tenure, but she did not participate in the decision.

 

Amaris Elliott-Engel can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or aelliott-engel@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisTLI.

(Copies of the 36-page opinion in Pennsylvania State Association of County Commissioners v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, PICS No. 12-1834, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.)