Fund the courts

In the middle of Philadelphia’s budget crisis, Mayor Nutter threatened to implement his so-called Plan C if state lawmakers rejected the city’s effort to increase the sales tax and defer pension payments.

Among the more cockamamy proposals in Nutter’s “doomsday” budget was the elimination of funding for the lower courts. That half-baked idea may have helped the city balance its five-year budget on paper, but in reality the move was an act of pure fiction.

It’s easy to see why Philadelphia would want to stop spending $100 million a year on the courts.
After all it is the state’s responsibility. That’s right, the state Supreme Court ordered the state legislature in 1987 to fund the lower court system in all 67 counties.

Amazingly, for two decades, state lawmakers — who take an oath to uphold the state Constitution — have ignored the ruling.

But rather than make empty budget threats, Nutter would be better served to join a lawsuit filed last year by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and nine county governments against the state.

Committee of Seventy, the local good government organization, recently filed a friend of the court brief supporting the motion by the other local governments, including Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County.

Zack Stalberg, the head of Seventy, rightly urged Nutter to join the suit. That makes sense given that the Philadelphia courts have the largest budget and biggest workforce, with about 1,800 employees.

It’s appalling the state legislature continues to thumb its nose at the state’s highest court. Mayor Nutter should lend Philadelphia’s clout to help right this wrong.

For those who forgot or are unfamiliar with how Harrisburg lawmakers believe they are above the law, this is one of the more egregious examples.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that the disparate funding of the local courts by the 67 counties created an inherently unequal system of justice. The high court ordered the state to fund the local courts, but allowed the county funding to remain in place until the legislature could come up with a plan.

The legislature never budged. In 1992, the County Commissioners Association filed a petition asking the court to enforce its original decision. The court appointed a retired justice to develop a plan — which it approved in 1996 — that called for transferring the funding to the commonwealth in four phases.

The first phase — which involved the transfer of 200 court administrators to the state — was completed in 1999. Since then, nothing has happened.

Philadelphia now faces a serious budget crunch. Other local governments are struggling as well. Funding the courts could provide needed relief.

The state has its own budget woes. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for the legislature to ignore the law.
Unequal funding of the courts at the local level is unfair to taxpayers. Some pay more and some pay less. More important, it makes for an uneven justice system for plaintiffs and defendants.

The state legislature has dragged its feet far too long on this issue. Mayor Nutter and other Philadelphia elected leaders should join the fight to get the state legislature to abide by the law. That should not be too much to ask, even for Harrisburg.