Government branches need to work together to keep effective judiciary

November 15, 2011

U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones called on Penn State Law students to tackle the problem of adequate funding for courts during “Justice Unfunded -- Justice Undone?” a panel discussion held on Nov. 10, at Lewis Katz Hall. “We’re fortunate that some of the things that have happened elsewhere in the nation have not happened in Pennsylvania yet .... Law students ... are leaders of tomorrow and you need to understand that this is not going to get easier,” he said.

A panel comprised of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd, Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, Pennsylvania Budget Secretary Charles Zogby, National Center for State Courts President Mary McQueen, and National Governors Association Federal Relations Director David Quam was moderated by Richard Thornburgh, former two-term Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General. Participants discussed the importance of an independent judiciary guaranteeing the prompt and efficient administration of justice, and debated the proper balance to be struck between courts and other funding priorities.

Thornburgh set the tone for the discussion by explaining that given the current and forecasted economic landscape, “this problem can’t be solved by raising more revenues.” He added that unless the problem of adequate court funding is resolved, the nation will face “dreadful consequences.”

The highlights of the discussion included a recap of actions already taken by the Pennsylvania judiciary under the leadership of Chief Justice Ronald Castille. Justice Todd pointed out that the courts returned $480 million in fees and restitution to the state budget by re-engineering existing processes, and to save an additional $200 million by developing innovative child and family law programs. She also noted that specialty problem-solving courts, unique to Pennsylvania, save $4.70 for every $1 of federal funds spent.

Quam and Zogby both praised the work of the judiciary but said that until at least 2016, state budgets would be under siege on all fronts -- from increased Medicare and pensions to public safety and education funding demands. “This type of activity has to continue year after year,” Quam said.

McQueen pointed out that states are testing dire measures with mixed results. Two examples she provided were the elimination of court reporting and the decriminalization of lower level misdemeanors. She also commented on the increase in court fees, “which gives new meaning to the phrase pay to play.” Several panelists expressed concerns that fees and other hurdles limit access to justice for financially challenged citizens.

Sponsorship and planning for the day’s events was spearheaded by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Judicial Independence Commission. The Commission was formed in 2005 to raise public awareness of the importance of a strong, independent judiciary in a free society. The commission believes chronic underfunding of the nations’ courts will have an impact on the independence of the judicial branch.

The event was co-sponsored by the Law School, the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues at Dickinson College, and the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 22, 2015