OPED: Waste in Pa. Judiciary must stop
Only in PA government would creating something that already exists, and nobody wants, at public expense, be considered progress. With the Commonwealth currently gridlocked in a budget impasse, and facing a potential increase in taxes, this is exactly what the Administrative Office of PA Courts (AOPC) is doing.
The AOPC is currently developing, at massive public expense, a computer software system to manage all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties Register of Wills and Clerk of Orphans’ Court offices. It is proceeding with this project without any sensitivity to Pennsylvania’s financial problems, and ignoring the overwhelming opposition expressed by most of the independently elected end users known as the Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans’ Court.
The AOPC IT department alone employs over 250 people expending over $18.5 million in annual salaries, $6.6 million in annual fringe benefits and $4.3 million in annual pension costs for a grand total of $29.5 million. In addition the AOPC expends over $122 million annually for 154 Court Administrators in the 67 counties. The AOPC staff is travelling the Commonwealth, at public expense during this budget impasse to obtain knowledge it does not possess about how the Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans’ Court conduct their business.
The AOPC is ignoring the capital investment of the York County Register of Wills and Clerk of Orphans’ Court spent at public expense to upgrade the department software in 2009 and subsequent upgrades to the software. Across the state Register of Wills/Clerks of Orphans’ Court offices use privately licensed software systems to manage their offices, including legal filings and financial management functions which best meet their office needs. Local elected officials have chosen these software systems through competitively and publicly bid contracts.
The easiest alternative is for county registers and clerks to transfer their data to the state court system, which they can use it in any lawful manner. This technology currently exists as the registers and clerks already use similar processes to interact with the PA Department of Revenue for Inheritance Tax collections.
This AOPC rewrite of existing software does nothing to address judicial uniformity. AOPC has suggested that its system is necessary for “judicial uniformity” from county to county. Unfortunately, lack of uniformity is not caused by practices of county registers/clerks; it is caused by differing local court rules and procedures used by local court administrators.
Local rules and court administrators are under the direct control of the judiciary, while the registers of wills and clerks of orphans’ court and other county row offices are independently elected and constitutionally obligated to manage their own office procedures. If the PA judiciary truly wanted uniform practice, it would first address the matter under its direct control, rather than seeking to exert and expand its control by micro-managing other independent local elected offices.
Under the PA Constitution and the County Code, the judiciary and the register of wills and clerk of orphans’ court have separate, but integral relationships. Our offices serve the court system, but are separate from the court system. This relationship serves to ensure the public gets better service, our budgets are more transparent and that there are limited checks on the nearly unlimited power of judiciary has assumed for itself.
The end goal is centralized control, unconstitutionally circumventing local elected officials. Court-related row offices (clerk of courts, prothonotary, register of wills and clerk of orphans’ court) in most counties are profit centers. They contribute to the operating budgets of their counties and decrease overall property tax burdens. The judiciary is hungry to control these court filing offices.
In the past, the judiciary has expressed interest in circumventing the provisions of the state constitution and judicial code and transferring these duties to its supervision. The end game is clear. The judiciary wants the monies generated by county offices appropriated back to it in order to support its massive bureaucracy.
That the AOPC not only wants control of filings, but of the accounting, cashiering and credit card processing of the county illuminates this goal. If the state judiciary centrally controls the software, then it effectively controls the day to day operation of the registers of wills and clerks of orphans’ court offices.
This runs afoul of the separation of powers ensconced in the PA Constitution. If all documents are being stored on AOPC servers, upon what authority is the AOPC relying upon to become custodian of county court records?
The Registers of Wills and Clerks Association of PA are urging PA legislators to accelerate the time for sunsetting the current AOPC’s regressive JCS/ATJ/CJEA fee of $35.50 to $14.50 to maintain existing computer systems and save filers of county deeds, lawsuits, summary criminal cases, probate actions, adoptions and other significant monies.
This $35.50 fee is paid by a disproportionate amount of Pennsylvanians at the bottom of the income scale. It is paid by criminal defendants, tenants appealing evictions, families probating a will, parents adopting a child, individuals seeking guardianship of a loved one and homeowner filing a deed or mortgage. Lowering this fee will encourage the judiciary to better marshal its resources and give a needed break to all Pennsylvanians.
I urge York County taxpayers to support and contact their legislator about this initiative to show that you believe no division of PA government should spend its time developing wasteful and duplicate projects.
Bradley C. Jacobs
York County Register of Wills/Clerk of Orphans’ Court