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With political winds blowing in favor of a new unified First Judicial District Family Court building, the Family Court’s leaders told an audience of lawyers Monday they hope they will see a modernized, improved facility during their tenures. Meanwhile, until funding is definitely inked into law and the lengthy process of building a new facility is undertaken, the court’s leaders plan to make due with the facilities they currently have. The lease on the domestic relations branch’s current home at 34 S. 11th St. is due to expire in early June, and Family Court will be renewing the lease for three years until the point in time that a new building might be ready, according to the court’s leaders. Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Kevin M. Dougherty, administrative judge of the family division, told the lawyers packing a boardroom at a meeting of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s family law section that it wasn’t an easy decision to keep the domestic relations branch at 34 S. 11th St. because he thought it was time to move to another facility. In particular, the environs of the domestic relations branch at 34 S. 11th St. have been criticized as outmoded, unsafe and crowded, but the juvenile branch at 1801 Vine St. has also been criticized as inadequate for the needs of the court system and its users.But after visiting several other sites and comparing the costs of moving to a new interim building to hunkering down for another three years, Dougherty said it was most beneficial to stay in the current facility. The state Senate last week passed a public works budget with $200 million in funding for a unified Family Court building at the parking lot at 15th and Arch streets. The proposed 2007-08 fiscal year capital budget has been referred to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to consider the amendments, including the Family Court appropriations, added to the version of the capital budget the House passed last summer. Gov. Edward G. Rendell, who has expressed support for a Family Court budget, will have both the authority to sign the capital budget into law and to decide which of the many wish-list public projects will get funded. “What was begun by [former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz] Newman has clearly become the priority of [Chief Justice Ronald D.] Castille,” Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Margaret T. Murphy, the supervising judge of Family Court’s domestic relations branch, said. “Thank God. Our day has finally come.” First Newman, and now Castille, have served as the Supreme Court’s liaison justice to the FJD. Murphy, however, said she believes in Murphy’s Law – that if anything can go wrong, it will – and she will only truly believe in the building’s reality “when we’re actually at the unveiling.” Dougherty and Murphy told the section they are visiting other jurisdictions’ facilities, including a recent trip to the Wilmington, Del., courthouse, to see what options might be available in a new building. The Delaware courthouse has 150 cameras, spaced about every 15 feet, with a command center that can zoom close enough to see faces throughout the facility, Dougherty and Murphy said. Since jury trials may become more common in juvenile cases, Dougherty said he was interested in the adaptable rooms where tables can be unscrewed and reconfigured. Murphy noted that Judge Ida K. Chen is requesting that the new facility have technical improvements like better acoustics to help the hearing impaired, and those needs will have to be balanced with the challenges of the domestic relations branch where a microphone could be used as a weapon or snide remarks from the gallery could be amplified with superior acoustics just as much as court officials’ remarks. The court is developing new protocols about how to partner the Family Court’s geographically and even culturally divided divisions in the new building, so that when the actual move is made, the protocols will be in place and the court will able to carry out its mission of service, Dougherty said. On other fronts, Dougherty said Family Court has worked with the Supreme Court to ensure the 25 Family Court judges wish to be in the court and aren’t judges being placed in Family Court to finish out their time on the bench before retirement. Too often, Dougherty and Murphy said, judges were assigned to the Family Court who didn’t want to be there because of the past perception of Family Court as a less important court. The Department of Human Services has been helpful in providing community-based services to domestic relations cases not rising to the level of dependency actions, Murphy said. A Family Court protocol for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youths was established to provide support groups and sexually transmitted disease testing for youths struggling with their sexual and gender identity at the same time they are undergoing puberty, Dougherty said. In response to a question, Murphy said the current custody caseload remains problematic, but that she continues to try different case management techniques to deal with the caseload. But Murphy said the caseload won’t be easily solved because easing the custody caseload is like trying to put 50 pounds inside a 10-pound bag. Both judges asked the dependency bar and the delinquency bar to reach out to each other, innovate and present their ideas to them. Dougherty said Murphy and he are a consultative, “solid team,” and that their doors are always open to constructive criticism, from attorneys directly or comments passed on by the family law section leadership.

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