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Franklin-Fulton district might get a fifth judge

August 05, 2007|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - President Judge John Walker says the 39th District of the Court of Common Pleas does not need a fifth judge now, but a bill in the Pennsylvania Senate would add another judge in the district covering Franklin and Fulton counties in 2012.

Senate Bill 861, which is co-sponsored by state Sen. Terry Punt, R-Franklin/Adams/York, was referred to the Appropriations Committee at the end of June. If eventually passed into law, it would add judges in Dauphin, Montgomery and Adams counties, with those new positions being up for election in 2009, according to a bill summary.

The exception would be Franklin and Fulton counties, where a new judge would be elected in 2011 and take office Jan. 2, 2012.

"Sen. Punt's office called us up and said there was going to be a bill for additional judgeships," Walker said.

The call came earlier this year, but left only a couple of weeks to put together the information needed to justify the request, he said.

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"I also didn't want to put the commissioners under that deadline," Walker said. "If the commissioners don't support it, it's dead meat."

Walker said he was told the court could submit the information later for a possible amendment.

"I don't really think we need another judge tomorrow," Walker said last week. At the same time, bills to add judgeships do not come up very often, and asking for the jurist to be added almost five years down the road allows for the county to do the necessary planning.

"If the caseload keeps going up at the current rate, it seems logical to add a fifth judge at that point," said Public Defender Mike Toms, whose office represents defendants who cannot afford private counsel. "Adding a fifth judge, though, is just the tip of the iceberg."

For one thing, a judge will need a courtroom.

The fourth courtroom added a few years ago to accommodate the county's fourth judge, Carol Van Horn, takes up the second floor courthouse annex space once occupied by the Board of County Commissioners. A fifth courtroom might require moving another office out of the annex, building an addition or placing the courtroom in another county building within Chambersburg.

An additional judge and courtroom also require a judge's chambers and space for support staff and additional personnel - assistant district attorneys and public defenders to prosecute and defend those charged; a secretary and law clerk for the judge; a court crier; more sheriff's deputies for security; and perhaps more staffing in the Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts offices, both Walker and Toms said.

"It's really adding 20 percent to the staff of the courthouse," Toms said.

The number of inmates being brought in also taxes the capacity of the holding cell in the Sheriff's Office, said Toms, noting that 27 prisoners were crowded in there on a recent Wednesday.

The number of criminal charges filed each year has ballooned since Walker was elected district attorney 35 years ago.

"When I was the district attorney in 1972, we had 400 cases and two judges," Walker said.

District Attorney John F. Nelson estimated that 3,500 new criminal cases were filed in 2006, although some are dismissed or otherwise settled before getting to a courtroom.

"The juvenile caseload is expanding tremendously," Nelson said, placing the combined number of adult and juvenile cases at about 4,000 per year. That does not include civil litigation filed through the Prothonotary's Office.

""It's going to require some planning and additional resources," said Nelson, which makes adding the judgeship five years down the road sensible.

"The answer to our increasing caseload problem is more than just another judge," Toms said.

The court system has a Case Flow Management Committee, "where we look at how things are running through the system and how we can improve that," he said.

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