With three vacancies among 15 judicial seats on the Court of Common Pleas, York County faces a "critical situation," according to President Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh.
The retirements of judges Sheryl Ann Dorney last year and Penny L. Blackwell on Jan. 6 left two vacancies.
Now, the county faces a temporary vacancy, as well: Judge Craig Trebilcock's last day on the bench was July 23, Linebaugh said. A colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, Trebilcock was activated and sent to the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, he said.
The judge is tentatively expected to return on June 8, 2015, barring an extension by the Army, Linebaugh said.
Caseloads: The vacancies are cause for concern because of a spike in the county's criminal cases two years ago, he said.
The York County Clerk of Courts filed 9,083 criminal cases in 2013. That number was slightly lower than the 9,226 in 2012 but a big jump from 7,974 in 2011 and 7,630 in 2010.
As of 11:30 a.m. on July 31, the office had filed 4,696 criminal cases so far this year, said Clerk of Courts Don O'Shell. That puts it on a pace for about 8,050 cases.
York's five judges who saw criminal cases were busy all the time, Linebaugh said. Now, with Trebilcock's absence, "those four judges are just shouldering the load," he said.
"We are a floundering ship, and I think, in the near future, are going to be a sinking ship because we just don't have judicial resources keeping us afloat," Linebaugh said.
Every judge has taken on additional cases and duties to keep the system going, he said. Linebaugh said he hopes the court can hold on until 2016, when two vacancies will be filled after the November 2015 election.
"But I can't predict when someone's going to become so exhausted that they say they can't keep up with it anymore," he said.
Appointments: The governor has the only authority to nominate candidates for vacant judge seats, and official appointments require a two-thirds majority vote in the state Senate, said Jay Pagni, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett.
Often, lawmakers recommend candidates to the governor. But anyone — including individuals nominating themselves — can make recommendations, he said.
Linebaugh said he knows an "awful lot of people" who let the governor know they were interested in the position, but it's not appropriate for the court to send in names.
"It isn't up to the judiciary to take the lead on this. ... The court doesn't make recommendations to fill vacancies," he said.
To fill past vacancies, there was a policy in which the governor would appoint a committee consisting of local leaders of the legal community, as well as people from business, industry, finance and the community at large, Linebaugh said.
The committee would make recommendations, interview candidates, review them and send in names, either to the governor himself or to a senator who would pass them along to the governor, he said.
Linebaugh said he twice went through that process with Gov. Tom Ridge, who served in the position from 1995 to 2001.
Looking forward: Linebaugh has sent letters to the governor and local senators that explain how important it is for the position to be filled, he said.
"The governor's office is well aware that we have vacancies," Linebaugh said.
Corbett in June appointed a wave of more than a dozen judges across the state — but not in York. So far, he has not received any recommendations of candidates to fill York County's vacant seats, Pagni said.
He said the governor's office was notified of Linebaugh's concerns in early July through correspondence from Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin/York.
"We will work closely with the commissioners and the judge, as well as the Senate, to fill these positions as soon as possible," Pagni said.
Linebaugh said he plans to meet with the governor's office on Monday morning to speak more about the issue.
— Staff writer Erin James contributed to this report. Reach Mollie Durkin at firstname.lastname@example.org.