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Pennsylvania State Association of County Commissioners, County of v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

September 26, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Chief Justice Castille


Motion to Enforce Mandamus and Order

ARGUED: December 2, 2009


On July 26, 1996, this Court filed an opinion granting mandamus relief and ordering the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to "enact a funding scheme for the court system on or before January 1, 1998." Pennsylvania State Ass'n of County Comm'rs v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 681 A.2d 699, 701 (Pa. 1996) ("PSACC"). That directive was in furtherance of the Court's prior holding "that the statutory scheme for county funding of the judicial system is in conflict with the intent clearly expressed in the constitution that the judicial system be unified." County of Allegheny v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 534 A.2d 760, 765 (Pa. 1987) ("Allegheny County II"). The PSACC Court also ordered the appointment of a master to prepare recommendations for implementation of the Court's ruling, and retained jurisdiction. In 1997, the master duly submitted an interim report, to which objections were filed. Thereafter, in 1999, the General Assembly enacted legislation which essentially effectuated the first phase of the master's recommendations. On December 8, 2008, petitioners, the Pennsylvania State Association of County Commissioners,*fn1 and the Counties of Allegheny, Bucks, Cumberland, Dauphin, Erie, Forest, Fulton, Monroe and Tioga, filed what is styled as a "Motion to Enforce Grant of Petition for Mandamus and Order," requesting that we "take appropriate action to enforce [the] Order of July 26, 1996 to compel the General Assembly to provide funding for the unified judicial system and to take those steps necessary to implement the Report of the Master and to take such other action as this Court deems appropriate under the circumstances." After careful consideration and thorough review, we now deny the motion to enforce, and we relinquish jurisdiction over the mandamus matter.

I. Background

We begin with a history of the litigation in this complicated, seemingly intractable matter. In 1985, Allegheny County filed a declaratory judgment action, in the original jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Court, against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. County of Allegheny v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 500 A.2d 1267 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1985) ("Allegheny County I"). Allegheny County sought an order directing that the Commonwealth -- and not the counties -- must provide the operating funds for all of the Commonwealth's courts, including the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. Allegheny County argued that the Pennsylvania Constitution vests the Commonwealth's judicial power in a "unified judicial system," and Commonwealth funding of all courts is thereby commanded:

The judicial power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in a unified judicial system consisting of the Supreme Court, the Superior Court, the Commonwealth Court, courts of common pleas, community courts, municipal and traffic courts in the City of Philadelphia, such other courts as may be provided by law and justices of the peace. All courts and justices of the peace and their jurisdiction shall be in this unified judicial system.

PA. CONST. art. V, § 1.

The declaratory judgment action was defended by the Attorney General on behalf of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Court rejected Allegheny County's argument, sustained the Commonwealth's demurrer and dismissed the action. 500 A.2d at 1271. The court held that the case was non-justiciable, and also that the court had "no power to fashion a judicial remedy which would require the General Assembly to fund the county court system when that obligation has been imposed upon the counties by the General Assembly." Id. at 1270. The court reasoned that it could not "judicially infer that the creation of a unified court system necessarily embodies funding of the courts of common pleas by the General Assembly in the absence of something more concrete than a litigant's contention that this must be so." Id.

A. Allegheny County II

On appeal, this Court vacated the Commonwealth Court's order in a four Justice to two Justice decision,*fn2 and entered judgment in favor of Allegheny County. Allegheny County II, 534 A.2d at 765. The Court majority first held that the declaratory judgment action was justiciable. The Court noted that a declaratory judgment inquiry encompassed "the ascertainment of the rights of the parties and whether protection for the asserted right can be judicially molded." Id. at 762. The Court then observed that because the General Assembly's control of fiscal matters might in some circumstances be limited by the Constitution, the "financing of state institutions has not been incontrovertibly and in all cases relegated to the direction and control of the General Assembly." Id. The Court stated that the action merely required a determination of whether the General Assembly had imposed obligations upon the County to fund Pennsylvania's court system, and if so, whether that obligation was constitutional. Since the rights of the parties "were able to be determined by construction of the relevant statutes and constitutional provisions," the Court held, the case was justiciable and the Commonwealth Court erred in entering judgment upon preliminary objections. Id. at 762.

Turning to the merits, the Court first recognized that, "it is apparent that the General Assembly intended to create a legislative scheme in which funding of the various judicial districts was primarily a responsibility of the counties, and that these responsibilities include the funding of salaries, services and accommodations for the judicial system." Id. at 763 (citing 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 2302, 3541, 3544, 3721 and 3722, and 16 P.S. § 1623). The Court then addressed the question of whether this obligation that the General Assembly placed upon the counties was constitutional. The Court held that it was not constitutional, because the "unified" judicial system envisioned in Article V, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution requires Commonwealth funding of all courts, including the county courts of common pleas. Id. at 765.

In explaining its holding, the Court first emphasized the last sentence of Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution, which provides that "All courts and justices of the peace and their jurisdiction shall be in this unified judicial system." PA. CONST. art. I, § 5. The Court then consulted the dictionary definition of the term "unify," which means "to cause to be one: make into a coherent group or whole: give unity to: HARMONIZE." Id. at 763 (quoting Webster's Third New International Dictionary). The Court then noted that Allegheny County's claim, in essence, was that the statutory system requiring the counties to fund their courts was not harmonious, but was instead "fraught with dissention [sic] and conflict which produces fragmentation." To illustrate this point, the County had focused on the fact that its authority to determine the number of employees necessary to the functioning of the local courts and their compensation, and the fact that the County is the employer for purposes of collective bargaining, "often embroil county authorities in disputes with the various judicial districts" over matters embracing, inter alia, collective bargaining rights, enforceability of labor arbitration awards, and whether the County's mandatory retirement system should cover court employees. Id. at 763-64 (characterizing County's argument). The Court then added that, in addition to disputes over collective bargaining and pensions, "there is a history of strife between the various judicial districts and the counties regarding funding [for court operations]." Id. at 764 (citing three examples of litigation that reached this Court).

The Court then opined that, "[i]t goes without saying that when relations between the judicial branch and the county governments deteriorate to the point where litigation is required to settle disagreements as to funding, the relationship is neither harmonious nor unified, but rather, fragmented." Id. The Court then noted that the Commonwealth argued that, irrespective of such disunity and fragmentation, the fact remained that the framers of the 1968 Constitution did not address the question of court funding, and therefore intended that the courts be funded as in the past, i.e., by the counties. The Court rejected this argument, stressing that, while the Constitution does not specify the manner of funding, it "does require that the judicial system shall be unified," and in the Court's view: "It is inconceivable that unity, in any meaningful sense of that word, can be attributed to a court system characterized by management and fiscal disagreements which periodically culminate in litigation in which the various counties and the courts within them are set off against each other as antagonists." Id. In making this point, the Court also addressed the argument forwarded in Chief Justice Nix's dissent (further described below) that county court systems were funded by an exercise of taxing power delegated to the counties, and thus, there was no disunity. The Court deemed this argument to be "illusory," because, while it may be true that the counties derive taxing power from the state, "these 'state' funds are being administered by local authorities in a manner that causes continual friction and dissension." Id. (emphasis in original).

After noting that its interpretation of the "concept" of unified judicial system depended not only upon its literal meaning, but also "upon an awareness of the legal and constitutional implications of those words," the Court added two additional points to support its conclusion that a unified system required centralized, Commonwealth funding of county courts. First, the Court addressed the issue of court staff, noting that the purpose of a unified judicial system is "to provide evenhanded, unbiased and competent administration of justice." Id. at 765. To the Court, this fact created an expectation that cases "will be processed as well in one county as another." Id. To meet that expectation, "judicial resources and staffing must be proportionately similar in all judicial districts," i.e., "[t]here must be uniform hiring practices and standards, and judges must be free to hire competent staff, not merely those referred by local political figures." A system subject to such political considerations in hiring, the Court reasoned, "will be neither evenhanded nor competent." Id.

Second, the Court noted its concern with "the public's perception of the judicial system." Id. The Court stated that the citizens of the Commonwealth had a right "to be absolutely certain" that neutrality and fairness in adjudication will actually be applied in every case. The likely effect of permitting court funding to remain in the hands of local political authority, the Court opined, would be "suspicion or perception of bias and favoritism." Id. In the Court's view, a unified judicial system cannot tolerate such uncertainties: "All courts must be free and independent from the occasion of political influence and no court should even be perceived to be biased in favor of local political authorities who pay the bills." Id.

For these reasons, the Court vacated the Commonwealth Court order and entered judgment in favor of the County. However, recognizing the disruption that its holding would create given the existing statutory scheme, the Court stayed its judgment "to afford the General Assembly an opportunity to enact appropriate funding legislation," thus leaving the existing funding scheme in place. Id.

Chief Justice Nix's dissent, joined by Justice McDermott, forcefully criticized the majority's reasoning, arguing that the question of court funding was clearly within the province of the General Assembly, and the majority's holding therefore violated the separation of powers doctrine. Id. at 765-68 (Nix, C.J., dissenting). The dissent further argued that: the majority neglected to note that the General Assembly already made a "significant direct contribution by reimbursement" to the County to defray court expenses, in addition to directly paying all judicial salaries; and the majority's conclusion that direct appropriation from the General Assembly was required for local courts ignored both "the distinction between the obligation to provide the funding and the discretion involved in determining an appropriate scheme of funding," and the fact that the County's taxing power is not separate and independent of the state's taxing power, but rather is a state power delegated to the County with conditions. Id. at 766. In the dissent's view, such a delegation of taxing power to counties where the common pleas courts were located "is in no way incompatible" with the constitutional requirement of a unified judicial system. Id. This was so because the constitutional mandate to fund the unified judicial system did not direct the method of funding; rather, that question was left to the Legislature. Id. at 765-66.

The dissent further criticized the majority by asserting that it had ignored that the complaint here was not brought by the unified judicial system or a constituent entity, but by a political subdivision, the County, "complaining as to the burden placed upon it by its parent." Id. at 766. In the dissent's view, the County "has no right to complain" merely because a state delegation of taxing power carried with it "the concomitant responsibility" to use the funds generated for the purpose designated by the delegating authority. Id. at 766-67. The dissent also challenged the majority's conclusion that the court financing scheme "created an air of dissension that is incompatible with the concept of a unified system." The dissent viewed such disputes between local courts and county commissioners to be isolated and insufficient to prove an "irreconcilable state-wide breakdown of the local funding process," and further noted that centralized funding would not eliminate funding disputes but merely shift them, which did not promise "a more harmonious process." Id. at 767.

Finally, the dissent questioned the majority's "unstated judgment" that centralized direct funding would provide a "greater benefit" to the operation of a unified judicial system. Id. In the dissent's view, this was not a judgment to be made by the judicial branch, and the validity of the assumption was questionable. The dissent noted the diversity of the state, including a range in cost of living standards; standardizing salaries according to function, the dissent opined, could inflate the cost of court operations in a given county without assuring an enhancement in the quality of services. Id. at 767-68.

Within the time for reargument after the Court's decision, the Governor and the General Assembly -- who had not participated as parties in the Allegheny County II litigation -- filed applications to intervene. However, the applications were denied by operation of law because the Court deadlocked on whether to allow intervention. Justice Papadakos, who had joined the majority opinion, filed a dissenting opinion with respect to the post-decision applications of the Governor and the General Assembly; Chief Justice Nix and Justice McDermott joined this dissent. The dissenters noted that, "in the spirit of comity among equal branches of government," they would have granted the applications to intervene and would have permitted the Governor and the Legislature to argue their positions on the question whether they were constitutionally obliged to provide direct full funding for the entire unified judicial system. Id. at 768.*fn3

The General Assembly did not enact comprehensive new court funding legislation in response to Allegheny County II, and over the years several requests to lift the stay and enforce the Court's judgment were lodged and denied. See, e.g., Bradley v. Casey, 682 A.2d 773 (Pa. 1988) (per curiam order directing City of Philadelphia to fund Philadelphia courts); City and County of Philadelphia v. Commonwealth, 89 E.D. Misc. 1989 (request for mandamus denied by per curiam order dated March 31, 1989). On February 12, 1991, Allegheny County filed a motion to lift the stay and enforce the 1987 judgment, which was denied by per curiam order on April 23, 1991. See PSACC, 681 A.2d at 703 n.3.

B. Allegheny County III

On October 7, 1992, Allegheny County and the State Association of County Commissioners filed another motion to enforce the 1987 judgment, seeking "an order to restore the level of funding existent in 1987 for Common Pleas Courts and district justice offices." In a very brief opinion authored by Justice Flaherty, the Court rebuffed the request, as follows: "Our 1987 order had nothing to do with levels of funding, but only with the method of funding. Because the instant petition is couched in terms of levels of funding, rather than the method of funding, the question of whether the legislature has violated our order is not squarely before us, for the system of funding is now the same as it was in 1987: the legislature now, as then, may choose or not choose to make contributions to fund county courts." County of Allegheny v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 626 A.2d 492, 493 (Pa. 1993) ("Allegheny County III") (emphasis in original).

Chief Justice Nix again filed a dissenting opinion, in which he reiterated his view that the 1987 order was improper and should be revoked: "The tragedy of the present situation is that the majority's order in [Allegheny County II] is unenforceable, and unenforceable orders like this breed contempt for the judgments of this Court." 626 A.2d at 493 (Nix, C.J., dissenting). Justices Larsen and Papadakos also filed dissenting opinions. Justice Larsen "would either grant the requested relief of state funding for the courts or revoke the original order." Id. (Larsen, J., dissenting, joined by Papadakos, J.). Justice Papadakos likewise expressed his "concern that this Court stands mute and ineffective in its interpretation of the Pennsylvania Constitution requiring the State to provide statewide funding for the uniform judicial district [sic]. Political considerations should be put aside and the Pennsylvania Constitution should be enforced." Id. (Papadakos, J., dissenting).


On December 7, 1992, petitioners filed a new mandamus action seeking an order compelling the General Assembly to abide by the Court's 1987 judgment. Respondents, the General Assembly -- which had not appeared as a party in Allegheny County II -- as well as the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, and "the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,"*fn4 argued that mandamus was not an available remedy and this Court had no jurisdiction over the matter; that the "speech and debate clause" of the Pennsylvania Constitution*fn5 shielded the legislative branch from the Court's authority; and that this Court's "denial of nearly identical prior petitions requires denial of this petition." PSACC, 681 A.2d at 701.*fn6

On July 26, 1996, the Court issued its decision in a majority opinion authored by Mr. Justice Flaherty and joined by Messrs. Justice Zappala, Cappy and Nigro. Id. at 700-03. The Court assumed plenary jurisdiction over the action, which it viewed as a matter of immediate public importance, pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 726, and the majority granted mandamus relief, ordering "that the General Assembly enact a funding scheme for the court system on or before January 1, 1998." Id. at 701.

In explaining its grant of mandamus, the majority first summarily noted that mandamus was the appropriate form for the enforcement action because "the General Assembly has a mandatory duty to fund the state courts and the petitioners have no other remedy at law." 681 A.2d at 702. The majority then rejected the claim that the ...

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