By Amaris Elliott-Engel
Of the Legal Staff
When six jurists were appointed earlier this month despite a moratorium on filling judicial vacancies, Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille floated the idea of telling the newly confirmed appointees that the judicial branch can't afford to pay their salaries and benefits and those individuals "may have to file a mandamus lawsuit in order to get paid."
However, Castille announced in a news release today that the six new judges must be paid under the state constitution, and the court will have to absorb $600,000 in additional costs despite facing a deficit of $17 million this fiscal year.
The six judges, two new Common Pleas judges in Washington and Bucks counties and four magisterial district judges in Bucks, Columbia, Lancaster and Lehigh counties, are unfunded in the court's current budget, Castille said.
"These deficits are not because the judiciary is an irresponsible steward of tax dollars or fails to publicly account for its spending," Castille said. "Rather, the deficits represent chronic under-funding of years' duration. These deficits are beyond anything the judiciary can 'save its way out of.'"
In May, Gov. Edward G. Rendell, who makes appointments to fill vacant judgeships, agreed with Castille to keep some 20 seats empty in an effort to save judicial funds. The only exception to the moratorium would be if a county court could convince Castille that filling a judicial vacancy was necessary to manage caseloads.
Castille previously called the filling of the vacancies disrespectful of the judiciary branch, and in today's news release he said that the executive branch did not consult with the judicial branch about advancing the nominations.
Gary Tuma, Rendell's press secretary, previously said that there was a misunderstanding and the administration understood that Castille had agreed that the vacancies should be filled.
Castille also called on Rendell to instruct his budget staff to make no changes in the court's proposed budget, which includes requests to cover the deficit, submitted by the judiciary for the 2011-12 fiscal year. That budget information will be advanced by the Rendell administration to the next governor, who is scheduled to be elected Tuesday.