Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg. Photo: Shutterstock

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices Max Baer and Sallie Mundy appeared before the state General Assembly on Feb. 26 to request a 4.5 percent budget increase in the coming year, but the justices ended up fielding numerous questions about a controversial proposal to roll back medical malpractice venue rules.

The judiciary’s 2019-2020 budget proposal asks for $371.5 million from state coffers. The judiciary’s total budget for the year is expected to be $487.3 million, with $1.9 million coming from the federal dollars and $113.9 million from court fees. Last year, the judiciary requested $355.5 million from the state.

While the two justices fielded questions for more than 90 minutes on a wide range of topics, including bail reform and cybersecurity, shortly after the session began, legislators asked about the proposed venue rule changes, which have received strong criticism from the medical industry and defense bar.

Pennsylvania Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, began the panel’s questioning by focusing on how committee members are chosen, how stakeholders can provide input and how the committee sets its agenda.

“I was somewhat concerned it was issued in the Pennsylvania Bulletin three days before Christmas, and many were unaware of it until after the new year,” Baker said. “There was no public hearing … and that had me very troubled.”

Sens. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, and Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, also questioned the justices about the proposal, with Yaw saying, “I just ask that you take a look at that from the idea of fairness.”

The justices said they select committee members based on experience and geographic diversity, among other factors. Baer said the timing of the proposal was “happenstance,” and that the court had received a letter asking it to wade into the rules, which Chief Justice Thomas Saylor forwarded to the committee.

After public outcry about the proposal, the court recently agreed to delay its review until after the legislature can release a report outlining what effects the changes may have.

“We’re anxious to see what they have to say,” Baer said about the legislative study.