MERCER CO. Fornelli: Caseload requires 4th judge

The court is running at least a two-month backlog on its nonemergency issues, the president judge said.
MERCER, Pa. -- Francis J. Fornelli believes Mercer County needs a fourth common pleas court judge.
"The workloads have increased enormously," said Mercer County's president judge who was elected in 1981 to fill the county's third judicial spot created the previous year by the state Legislature.
The need for a fourth judge was evident a decade ago, but Mercer County Common Pleas Court has taken a variety of steps to deal with the growing workload, including implementing early-intervention programs, fast-tracking criminal cases, streamlining civil trial rules and creating a family law master hearing program to speed up family law cases, Fornelli said.
"We've been able to stay current with criminal and civil cases, but the other stuff is back-logged," he said. The court also includes Judges Michael Wherry and Thomas Dobson.
It's gotten to the point that almost every day of the next month's court calendar is booked in advance with hearings, trials and pleadings.
There are only two or two and one-half days not committed and all new cases must be fit into those slots or held for the following month, he said.
The court is running between two and two and one-half months behind with nonemergency issues and that is "unconscionable," Fornelli said, adding that he's been spending two weeks of his vacation time in recent years coming back to the courthouse just trying to catch up with child custody cases.
Here's the situation
Things are getting worse.
The county district attorney's office handled more than 2,000 criminal cases that ran through the court system last year. District Attorney James Epstein said the first three months of 2002 are already 150 cases ahead of the same period in 2001.
If that trend continues, the courts will see an additional 600 criminal cases this year.
Mercer is the only one of 11 fifth-class counties in the state that doesn't have a fourth judge, Fornelli said, adding that neighboring Lawrence County is a smaller, sixth-class county, and has added two common pleas judges over the past 10 years for a total of four.
The common pleas ranks across the state grew from 309 to 409 over the past decade but the Legislature isn't sure it wants to create any more right now, he said, noting that penalizes Mercer County for its hard work and efforts to avoid having to add a fourth judge for so long.
Getting that fourth position isn't an easy task, said state Sen. Robert Robbins of Greenville, R-50th.
Mercer County Court of Common Pleas and the Mercer County commissioners have indicated they favor the addition, but Robbins said it can be slow going.
"We're working on a bill which would start the process," he said, adding that this type of legislation usually draws a lot of amendments from other counties that suddenly decide they need another judge too.
The legislation has to be approved by the Senate and then the House and be signed into law by the governor.
Fornelli said that, ideally, it would be nice to have the position created in time for judicial candidates to run for office in the November 2003 general election.
Robbins was less optimistic.
It could take two or three years or longer to get the legislation passed, he said.
Fornelli said the timing is right to add a fourth judge from the courthouse perspective.
The county is in the midst of a $10 million interior renovation of the structure and it would be an ideal time to add a small, fourth courtroom at the east end of the third floor, he said.
It would be a mirror of the courtroom on the western end of that floor built when the third judgeship was added to the county, he said.
The two large courtrooms are on the second floor.
The building renovation plans already call for conversion of that targeted third-floor area into a large hearing room for the family law master and it wouldn't take much to add a jury box and some seating to make it a courtroom, Fornelli said.
The cost of staffing the court could be minimal, he said.
A judge is a state official and his or her $119,000 annual salary is paid by the state.
In addition, the state gives the county $70,000 a year for judicial expenses.
That should be enough to pay the salaries of a court crier and law clerk for a new judge and, with a fourth person on the bench, it might be possible to eliminate the family law hearing master position, freeing up the secretary and court reporter who work with that office, he said.
They could be reassigned to the new judge, Fornelli said.
He asked the Mercer County Bar Association to create an independent committee to study the issue and verify the need for a fourth judge.
Atty. Donald McKay, chairman of that committee, said its work is done but its recommendation won't be revealed until it can be presented to the full bar association.
Atty. John Reed, bar association president, said a special meeting has been scheduled for May 6 to hear and vote on that recommendation.

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