Justice Ronald Castille
Justice Ronald Castille ()

Pennsylvania court officials are set to take a close look at exactly how many trial judges are needed across the state. The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has asked the National Center for State Courts to assess the workload of all trial judges in the state. The in-depth study is expected to result in a report outlining the needs of the judiciary, which will then be brought to the state General Assembly for further action.

“We want to evaluate the time that it takes on average [for the judges to handle cases], and see if we can create a matrix to assess the need for more or fewer common pleas judges,” state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said. “It’ll be answering [the legislature's] questions to us about the number of common pleas court judgeships in the state, and it’s up to the legislature if they want to eliminate or add.”

Castille said judgeships have historically only been created for political reasons, without regard to meeting the needs of the judiciary. However, after the “right sizing” efforts resulted in a significant reduction of magisterial district judges in recent years, members of the legislature began asking about whether similar efforts could be undertaken at the common pleas level, Castille said. Those conversations, he said, spurred the decision to assess the trial courts’ statewide caseload and economic needs.

“I think a lot of judges are afraid or leery of it to some extent. They think it’s going to be a tool to get rid of some judgeships in various counties,” he said. “I say no. We want to take an independent look at it. With the population shifts, some districts might need more.”

While there is no possibility that the study could result in redistricting, Castille said, in addition to adding or reducing positions, judges could also be moved to various counties across the state to alleviate stressed districts.

As part of the study, all common pleas trial judges in the state are expected to report via a secured Internet line the amount of time spent on various tasks related to the cases they handle. Along with the activities on the bench, these tasks will include anything the judge performs off the bench, such as conducting settlement conferences, administrative duties and writing opinions. The study, which is being referred to as a “weighted caseload” study, will also weigh the tasks based on the types of cases.

Monroe County Court of Common Pleas Judge Margherita Patti Worthington said such a detailed study should give a better picture of the needs of the judiciary.

“You don’t see a lot of the things judges do. There’s a lot of behind-the-bench time researching and writing,” she said. “This will take into account all of those variants, and will assist in figuring out what is needed for each district.”

The project officially began in November, when project leaders from the NCSC, officials from the AOPC and many of the judges that comprise the Judicial Needs Assessment Committee met to outline the study. The NCSC has conducted similar work in numerous states, according to the AOPC.

Since December, officials have been designing the project. Training is expected to begin this month or in February, and the data collection should begin sometime in early spring. Officials aim to have a draft report available by the summer.

Along with a final document for the General Assembly, the information gathered in the study will allow the AOPC to better allocate its resources and utilize personnel, such as senior judges.

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said a study of this kind is timely.

“Just in the last year there has been talk about creating new judgeships, cutting new judgeships, allocating senior judges and the legislature asking questions about the budget,” she said. She added that she is confident the NCSC will be able to create a study that adequately accounts for the diversity of Pennsylvania’s trial court systems. “I think it’s timely, and I’m glad it will be done by the National Center for State Courts, which not only has experience doing these studies, but they’ve also assisted the Pennsylvania courts in a number of issues.”

Lycoming County Court of Common Pleas Judge Dudley Anderson, who is a member of the Judicial Needs Assessment Committee, said he is confident the study will result in another tool for the Supreme Court and AOPC to continue successfully managing the statewide court system.

While he said did not know the demands of the courts across the state, the Lycoming court has struck a good balance with its workload, he said.

“We’re constantly busy, but we’re able to keep up. We manage our court in such a way that we don’t have cases that are languishing,” he said. “We are able to keep up with our load that is given to us, but we don’t have a great deal of down time. We don’t have anybody that sits around all day and says, ‘I wonder when the next case is coming in.’”

Mathieu J. Shapiro of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel said increased efficiency in the court system would benefit attorneys and the public.

“Lawyers don’t want to waste judges’ time, and we don’t want to have our time wasted. We don’t want to be waiting in cattle call,” he said. “At the end of the day, that [increased efficiency] benefits the clients, and that’s what we want to do, judges and lawyers alike.”

Criminal defense attorney David W. Zellis, who regularly works in several Eastern Pennsylvania counties, said that because the districts have developed such vastly different justice systems, a study of the activities might not be the best method to determine efficiency. A study of the county systems might provide more valuable information, he said.

“Monitoring how much time they’re spending on things, that almost presumes that they’re wasting time,” he said. “Rather than some numbers crunch, they should be looking at the way each county may be moving their cases to see which is the most cost-effective way.”

Imposing any changes to that system based on the number of judges as determined by a statewide study could also lead to problems, Zellis said.

“Whereas you can do that in a corporate setting, that’s not the way justice is administered,” he said.

Pittsburgh-based personal injury attorney John Gismondi agreed. He said that, while there likely could be inefficiencies that the study could iron out, using a statewide matrix to shape local courts could affect the larger system’s ability to adapt to surges in litigation.

“Court work, and the demands on the court, can be very unpredictable. I’m not sure you can lay out a matrix that’s going to perfectly deploy your resources,” he said, giving as an example the impact that the recent boom in asbestos litigation had on courts across the state. “Who could have ever anticipated that? Each court had to come up with their own way of dealing with their own cases. You’ve got to have that flexibility, and adapt.”

Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or mmitchell@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI. •