Supporters of a modern well-funded court system for Pennsylvania suffered a setback last week when the PA Supreme Court rejected Allegheny County’s attempt to force the state legislature to pay for all PA’s court services and employees.
People may not realize this but the state legislature has already lost this fight – they’re just not funding the courts anyway, as Len Barcousky explains:
The dispute dates to 1985. Allegheny County commissioners, citing the state constitution, had sought a judicial order directing the state, and not individual counties, to provide operating funds for all levels of the courts.
A divided state Supreme Court upheld the county’s position in 1987, but the justices delayed enforcement “to afford the General Assembly an opportunity to enact appropriate funding legislation,” according to the latest opinion. Several other court cases followed, and in 1996, a majority of the high court ordered that “the General Assembly enact a funding scheme for the court system on or before January 1, 1998.”
Running parallel with the litigation, however, was improving governmental cooperation, the court said. Integration of computer operations and salaries for court administrators into the state budget represented progress in creating a unified system, according to the justices.
Also, timing was not good for shifting all court costs to the state, the justices found, because all branches of government were facing financial problems” as a result of a continuing economic crisis and concomitantly diminished revenues.”
The argument in that last paragraph is just really weak. It’s true that all branches of government face financial problems, but then the question you need to ask is which tax base is better able to take on the burden – county tax bases or the state tax base? Clearly it’s the state. The state has greater taxing powers, a more diverse array of revenue sources, and a broader base of payers.
Counties’ ability to afford funding for court services and employees is tied to the value of a given area’s ratables, and obviously there’s a ton of variation there. People should be able to count on a well-funded, well-staffed court system regardless of where they live, and how much property wealth their region has.