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President Judge Alex Bonavitacola of Pennsylvania’s First Judicial District was very reluctant to become a court administrator. It was 1992, and the backlog in the district consisted of approximately 28,000 cases. Arbitration appeals were building up, and the court was struggling on the criminal side to keep up with the mandates of the speedy-trial law. But Bonavitacola decided to take the challenge, and in July 1992, the state Supreme Court appointed him administrative judge of the Trial Division. He implemented the Day Backward program in the fall of that year and eventually brought the seemingly intractable backlog to heel. That, he said, was his biggest accomplishment during his tenure in the leadership of Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas — first as administrative judge and then president judge. “I knew that it was a rather large task to try to become innovative in order to resolve those problems,” Bonavitacola said. “I had confidence that, as long as I had the cooperation of my colleagues on the bench and the cooperation of the bar association, that we could make this happen.” And it did happen. Now, after five years at the helm of the common pleas court, Bonavitacola will end his term as president judge next month. Bonavitacola was unanimously elected by his colleagues to the five-year position in December 1995. He was elected judge in 1973, re-elected in 1983 and voted in again in 1993. Throughout his judicial career, he has served in the Trial Division, the Family Court Division and the Orphans’ Court Division. When he took over as administrative judge in 1992, the First Judicial District was at the bottom of the list of major metropolitan areas in terms of case management. Bonavitacola said cases “meandered” through the system. So he abolished the old system of the call of the list and a number of ineffective programs. Then, he said, he had to establish some credibility with what he called the Day Backward program. He decided to attack the arbitration appeals first, reasoning that if the court could get those numbers down, then the overall program would gain some respect. A reasonable inventory would be about 1,000 appeals, but at the time, the number of appeals had reached 3,600. So Bonavitacola put all the judges on the civil side on duty to reduce the number of arbitration appeals, and he even did some settlement conferences himself. “In approximately five to six months time, we were able to reduce it from the 3,600 down to … about 800,” Bonavitacola said. “That gave us credibility, that if we decided to attack something, we could accomplish our goal.” After a while, the judge realized that in order for the system to be completely effective, special attention had to be paid to the new cases so they did not become backlogged, old cases. In 1995, the Day Forward program was implemented, and now the court’s case-management efforts are concentrated solely on the new cases. Bonavitacola said one thing he did that proved to be very successful was appoint Judge Legrome D. Davis as the supervising judge of the criminal division so Bonavitacola could concentrate more on case management on the civil side. The judge said the court had to do a little innovating along the way in the case-management program, but one of the key components of the system was to establish conference officers who would preside over a conference 90 days after the initial pleading is filed. Another essential element of the program, he said, is the setting of discovery deadlines. “Judges don’t settle cases; lawyers settle cases,” Bonavitacola said. “Lawyers only settle cases that they have prepared and know well, and lawyers don’t prepare their cases unless there are scheduled significant events that force them to prepare their cases.” Another of the judge’s significant accomplishments is the court’s embrace of new technology, particularly the court’s Web site, http://www.courts.phila.gov/, which Bonavitacola said has reduced foot traffic to the prothonotary’s office by about 50 percent. And also born during Bonavitacola’s tenure was the Commerce Case Management Program, still in its infancy. The judge said the hardest thing he had to do over the last several years was “to inspire our judicial complement to serve the court and themselves well by inspiring them with the hope that hard work would solve the problem.” To wrap things up, the judge said he’s been working on categorizing all the things a president judge does for whoever takes over. Some of those duties include being the reviewing authority for all mental health commitments, budgeting, supervising all 105 court reporters, overseeing the messenger and courier services, and being the public spokesman for the court. And being the public spokesman means taking the “arrows” as well as the “plaudits.” Recently, for instance, the court has been criticized by members of the bar after the administration announced plans for a request for proposals from defense organizations willing to take indigent case work. Bonavitacola’s term ends on Jan. 10, and when it does, the judge said, he will probably retire. He said he hasn’t taken a vacation all year and plans to head to Florida for some time off. When he returns, he said he intends to offer his services pro bono to the mayor and to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. And what does he hope is his legacy? “That the court should always be innovative in order to deliver services to the public fairly and expeditiously and not to have the court looked upon as a place where causes are delayed forever.” As for his successor, all the judges of the common pleas court are scheduled to vote on Thursday to name the next president judge. The judges do not campaign per se, but there are several judges who have indicated an interest in holding the prestigious position, including Administrative Judge John W. Herron, Administrative Judge of Family Court Judge Paul P. Panepinto, Judge Frederica A. Massiah-Jackson, Judge William J. Manfredi and Judge Eugene E.J. Maier. Bonavitacola said he does have some advice to offer for his successor. “My advice for any president judge is not to take themselves too seriously,” Bonavitacola said. “To devote the energies to the requirements of the job and not just the ceremonial aspect — and to seek the advice of other judges who they value because it’s not a thing for solitary judgment alone. You have to have a feeling among those that you trust, whether the moves that you propose are going to be appropriate or not.”

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