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COUNTY ALLEGHENY v. COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA (12/07/87)

decided: December 7, 1987.

COUNTY OF ALLEGHENY, APPELLANT,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court dated November 22, 1985, at No. 636 C.D. 1985. 93 Pa. Commw. Ct. 112, Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty,*fn* McDermott, Zappala and Papadakos, JJ. Hutchinson, J., did not participate in the decision of this case. Nix, C.j., filed a dissenting opinion which McDermott, J., joined. Papadakos, Justice, dissenting. Nix, C.j., and McDERMOTT, J., join this dissent.

Author: Flaherty

[ 517 Pa. Page 68]

Opinion OF THE COURT

The question raised by this appeal is whether the various counties of Pennsylvania are required by statute to fund the common pleas court system, and if they are, whether such a funding scheme is constitutional.

On March 16, 1985 Allegheny County filed an Application for Declaratory Judgment in Commonwealth Court addressed to that court's original jurisdiction, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 761(a). The County sought a declaration that it was not obligated by statute to fund the Common Pleas Court of Allegheny County and an order directing the Commonwealth to fund all aspects of the unified court system of Pennsylvania. Simultaneously, the County also requested this Court to assume extraordinary jurisdiction over the matter. We denied the request for extraordinary jurisdiction and the case proceeded in Commonwealth Court.

In its Application the County alleged that for the fiscal year 1984 it expended $22,327,415 for personnel, facilities, and services necessary for the operation of the county court system and that it employed over 800 persons who were necessary for the court's functioning. It further alleged that because the number and compensation of employees necessary for the functioning of the court are controlled by county officials other than judges of the Court of Common Pleas, there are continuing disputes between the County and the Court of Common Pleas concerning the funding of these employees. Similarly, according to the County's application, there are recurrent disputes over the level of funding necessary for supporting facilities and services, which the County acknowledges it is required by statute to provide. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 3721(a).

In response to the County's Application for Declaratory Judgment, the Commonwealth filed preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer, alleging, inter alia, that the County failed to set forth a cause of action upon which

[ 517 Pa. Page 69]

    relief may be granted; that the relief sought contravenes the separation of powers doctrine; that the constitutional challenges are without foundation; and that Commonwealth Court was without power to direct the Executive Branch to fund the courts. Commonwealth Court sustained the demurrer on the grounds that the Application presented no justiciable controversy and the court was without power to fashion the remedy requested by the county.

Citing Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 82 S.Ct. 691, 7 L.Ed.2d 663 (1962), Commonwealth Court reasoned that the issues raised in this case are non-justiciable because there is "a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate governmental branch and impossibility of an appropriate judicial remedy." 93 Pa. Commw. 112, 114, 500 A.2d 1267 (1985). In other words, in the view of Commonwealth Court, the matter was not capable of resolution by the courts since it had been constitutionally assigned as being within the sole province of another branch of government. In support of this view, the court made reference to this Court's decision in Shapp v. Sloan, 480 Pa. 449, 469, 391 A.2d 595 (1978) in which we held that the General Assembly "has been given the constitutional power to determine what [governmental] programs will be adopted . . . and how they will be financed."

We disagree that the issues raised in this case are non-justiciable. The United States Supreme Court in Baker v. Carr defined "non-justiciability" as follows:

In the instance of non-justiciability, consideration of the cause is not wholly and immediately foreclosed; rather, the Court's inquiry necessarily proceeds to the point of deciding whether the duty asserted can be judicially identified and its breach judicially determined, and whether protection for the right asserted can be judicially molded.

369 U.S. at 198, 82 S.Ct. at 700, 7 L.Ed.2d at 674. Since this is a declaratory judgment action, the court's inquiry concerns the ascertainment of the rights of the parties and whether protection for the asserted right can be judicially

[ 517 Pa. Page 70]

    molded. See The Declaratory Judgments Act, 42 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 7531-7541.

In Shapp v. Sloan, 480 Pa. 449, 391 A.2d 595 (1978), this Court recognized the authority of the General Assembly to control the state's finances, but the Court also recognized that the General Assembly's control of fiscal matters might, in particular circumstances not present in that case, be limited by the constitution. Shapp v. Sloan, therefore, is no authority for the proposition that control of the state's finances has been incontrovertibly and in all instances assigned to the authority of the General Assembly. Moreover, in Beckert v. Warren, 497 Pa. 137, 145, 439 A.2d 638 (1981), we reaffirmed the holding of Leahey v. Farrell, 362 Pa. 52, 57, 66 A.2d 577, 579 (1949), that although control of state finances rests with the legislature, that control is subject to constitutional limitations.

Essentially, this is a case in which Commonwealth Court was called upon to determine, by way of familiar principles of constitutional and statutory construction whether the General Assembly has imposed any obligations on the County to fund Pennsylvania's court system, and if it has, whether these obligations are constitutional. Since, as we have seen, the financing of state institutions has not been incontrovertibly and in all cases relegated to the direction and control of the General Assembly, and since the rights of the parties were able to be determined by construction of the relevant statutes and constitutional provisions, it was error for Commonwealth Court to hold that the case is non-justiciable and to enter judgment upon preliminary objections.

Ordinarily, we would remand for trial a case erroneously decided upon preliminary objections, but in this case Commonwealth Court also addressed the merits and resolved them against the County. Since the record is complete and we are required only to address legal, not factual questions, we will treat the case as having been decided upon the merits below.

[ 517 Pa. Page 71]

The first issue raised by the County is whether there is a statutory requirement that the County fund the courts within its judicial district. Although the County concedes that it is required by the Judicial Code, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 3721, to furnish certain accommodations, goods and services for the functioning of the courts within its judicial district, it argues that there is no statutory requirement that it employ personnel for use in the court system.

The Judicial Code requires that County officials provide adequate staff for the courts:

Whenever necessary, it shall be the duty of county officers to appoint or detail such county staff as shall enable the judges of the courts embracing the county to properly transact the business before their respective courts.

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 2302. Further, the County is required to establish and maintain a judicial and related account. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 3541. Out ...


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