Efforts to 'Right Size' Pa. Trial Judges on the Horizon

, The Legal Intelligencer


Justice Ronald Castille
Justice Ronald Castille

Pennsylvania court officials are set to take a close look at exactly how many trial judges are needed across the state. The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has asked the National Center for State Courts to assess the workload of all trial judges in the state. The in-depth study is expected to result in a report outlining the needs of the judiciary, which will then be brought to the state General Assembly for further action.

"We want to evaluate the time that it takes on average [for the judges to handle cases], and see if we can create a matrix to assess the need for more or fewer common pleas judges," state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said. "It'll be answering [the legislature's] questions to us about the number of common pleas court judgeships in the state, and it's up to the legislature if they want to eliminate or add."

Castille said judgeships have historically only been created for political reasons, without regard to meeting the needs of the judiciary. However, after the "right sizing" efforts resulted in a significant reduction of magisterial district judges in recent years, members of the legislature began asking about whether similar efforts could be undertaken at the common pleas level, Castille said. Those conversations, he said, spurred the decision to assess the trial courts' statewide caseload and economic needs.

"I think a lot of judges are afraid or leery of it to some extent. They think it's going to be a tool to get rid of some judgeships in various counties," he said. "I say no. We want to take an independent look at it. With the population shifts, some districts might need more."

While there is no possibility that the study could result in redistricting, Castille said, in addition to adding or reducing positions, judges could also be moved to various counties across the state to alleviate stressed districts.

As part of the study, all common pleas trial judges in the state are expected to report via a secured Internet line the amount of time spent on various tasks related to the cases they handle. Along with the activities on the bench, these tasks will include anything the judge performs off the bench, such as conducting settlement conferences, administrative duties and writing opinions. The study, which is being referred to as a "weighted caseload" study, will also weigh the tasks based on the types of cases.

Monroe County Court of Common Pleas Judge Margherita Patti Worthington said such a detailed study should give a better picture of the needs of the judiciary.

"You don't see a lot of the things judges do. There's a lot of behind-the-bench time researching and writing," she said. "This will take into account all of those variants, and will assist in figuring out what is needed for each district."

The project officially began in November, when project leaders from the NCSC, officials from the AOPC and many of the judges that comprise the Judicial Needs Assessment Committee met to outline the study. The NCSC has conducted similar work in numerous states, according to the AOPC.

Since December, officials have been designing the project. Training is expected to begin this month or in February, and the data collection should begin sometime in early spring. Officials aim to have a draft report available by the summer.

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