OPED: Orphans' court naysayers got it wrong

Thomas B. Darr
Pennsylvania court administrator



For some time, a number — not all — of Pennsylvania’s orphans’ court clerks have been waging a campaign against a project of the state Judiciary to develop a single computer system for their offices that will integrate with existing statewide Judiciary information systems. 

Amazingly, the extent of their efforts has included retention of the government relations arm of a large Philadelphia law firm to actively lobby their position!

To paraphrase the statement of some of the orphans court (OC) naysayers, only in Pennsylvania would a small group of office holders, paid at public expense, attempt to subvert through paid lobbyists and, frankly, a great deal of smokescreen, an effort to improve government services without the expenditure of tax dollars. 

The fact is that the OC naysayers’ position challenges the basic principles of competitive procurement, is supported by neither logic nor fact, and is untenable in a modern court system.  In response to a recent opinion piece published here, I would like to correct the record with facts.

Currently, orphans court clerks use eight or more disparate computer programs to perform record-keeping functions for the courts in our 67 counties. The Judiciary is using its nearly 30 years’ successful experience in court information technology to create a single OC system.  When completed, citizens will for the first time have a consistent way to file and access orphans court records statewide, be able to make apples-to-apples comparisons of the work of these elected officials, and even use credit cards on-line to conduct transaction.

To try to thwart the Judiciary’s work, opponents claim first that their offices, established in the state Constitution, are not subject to direction by the judiciary, but the fact is that the Constitution, state law, and Supreme Court rules provide precisely that authority. 

The opponents complain that Judiciary leaders will not meet with them to discuss their concerns and imply that their input is neither sought nor wanted in designing the new system. In fact, a time-tested process used by the Judiciary to develop this and all prior systems is driven by input from the users in regularly scheduled “joint application development” (JAD) sessions. In addition to the JAD sessions there have been numerous meetings and discussions, variously, between them, court officials and staff, and legislators.  In fact, a number of legislators publicly support this project’s implementation.

Worst of all, the opponents desperately rely on red herrings in their published opinion pieces with assertions that bear no relationship to this project or any of the Judiciary’s information technology work.  It is both regrettable and shocking to realize how little some of the OC naysayers understand about the branch of government in which their offices exist and how readily they will conflate unrelated topics to try to make their case.

For example, funding for judicial computerization cannot be used to pay jurors or fund programs within another branch of government  as they suggest since the Judiciary’s IT efforts are funded through dedicated user fees, not tax dollars. And, their assertion to the contrary, pursuit of this project quite obviously has no relationship to the Commonwealth’s current budget challenges.  

The incremental cost of this project is not $18 million, but about $3 million over a three-year period, a fact which we have noted to opponents. This is not an insignificant sum, but one that likely compares favorably to the total cost of OC clerks’ existing systems. For the record, the AOPC has publicly committed to work with OC clerks to minimize any loss of county investment in existing systems’ maintenance agreements (recognizing too that as those systems age, counties will never again have to make capital investments once the Judiciary system is implemented), which translates into county taxpayer savings.

Finally, counter to OC naysayers’ assertions, the Judiciary’s intent has little to do with control and nothing to do with the collection of fees.  Proof in point: In other county court offices where statewide systems have been implemented, the day-to-day control of those offices clearly remains with the local elected (or appointed in home rule counties) officials as it will in OC clerks’ offices.

Rather, the Judiciary’s effort to extend its statewide, integrated case management system to orphans court clerks’ offices is about modernizing a system that dates to colonial times in a manner that is actually cost-beneficial to counties. Any remaining issue of control centers on the simple – though crucial – premise of the state Constitution and law that the Judiciary has and must exercise it authority to achieve that modernization.

We appreciate the work of orphans’ court clerks statewide and especially of those who have constructively participated in planning meetings to date, with whom we look forward to continued collaboration.

Editor's Note: This essay is in response to one by Bradley Jacobs that appeared in the  Dec. 17 edition. The response was written by Thomas B. Darr, Court Administrator of Pennsylvania.