Supreme Excuses for Failure in Luzerne County

email from Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, 2/27/09

The Philadelphia Daily News’s John Baer this week eported a conversation with PA Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille about the injustice inflicted by the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas on thousands of children. Click here for a link to Baer’s column, which says a lot more about Castille and the court than the chief justice intended. For more about the Luzerne County scandal, click here for last week’s DR News.

Two judges have pleaded guilty to taking $2.6 million in kickbacks for placing children in certain juvenile detention facilities at a rate two-and-a-half times the state average, and for denying children counsel at a rate 10 times the state average. So the lingering questions are:

Why did the PA Supreme Court, responsible for all of PA’s courts, remain silent for nine months after the Juvenile Law Center, the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Public Welfare presented the court with these facts?

When it finally ruled, why did the Supreme Court refuse to investigate the Luzerne County Court?

Why did it refuse to explain officially either what took so long or why it wouldn’t intervene?

Does it matter that one of the owners of the juvenile detention centers is the son of a former PA Supreme Court chief justice?

About the delay, Castille said that since one of the guilty judges had changed the court’s policy about the right to counsel, he didn’t think there was still a problem. Castille apparently was unconcerned about the thousands of children whose rights already had been violated, some of whom were still wrongly sitting in juvenile jails.

About the statistics, Castille said, “Well, you know statistics… There are lies, damn lies and statistics.” He further told Baer, “They weren’t our statistics.” In fact, they are the Supreme Court’s statistics. They are PA’s official statistics, compiled under law by the Juvenile Court Judges Commission . It’s an odd position for Castille to take since he recommends people to the governor for appointment to the JCJC.

About the investigation, Castille said, “We are not an investigative agency.” First, Castille appears to admit that any kind of illegality can occur in Pennsylvania’s courts and the head of the court system can’t look into it. Does anyone believe this? Second, even if that were true, why didn’t he refer the allegations to someone who could investigate such as an already-concerned attorney general? That’s when he claimed, “They weren’t our statistics.”

Flipping the Presumption, or Flipping the Bird?

Amid great fanfare, lawmakers told us last year that the new open records law finally “flipped the presumption.” Instead of presuming that government records were secret, PA’s law henceforth would presume that government records were open.

While that may be true in the executive branch, for the legislature the rhetoric about flipping the presumption turned into flipping taxpayers the bird this week. AP’s Mark Scolforo reported that both the House and Senate have refused to release emails and other communications between legislative leaders and lobbyists. Click here for the story.

Senate Secretary Mark Corrigan explained, “Nowhere in (the) list of accessible legislative records is found the mention of correspondence between members of the Senate and registered lobbyists.” … “It would seem clear and unambiguous that it was not the intention of the General Assembly to make such a general class of records into accessible legislative records.”

In other words, citizens still have to prove that records should be open rather than lawmakers having to prove that they should be secret.

A Tale of Two Branches

For decades, Pennsylvania’s executive branch has distinguished itself by having fewer state employees per 100,000 citizens than any other state.

Now, thanks to John Baer again, we learn that Pennsylvania’s legislative branch has disgraced itself (further) by having the largest number of full-time staff of any legislature in America. Click here for Baer’s column on the subject.

Two guesses, though, as to which branch of government is laying off staff, and which branch is adding staff during this recession. Even New York’s legislature, previously the most bloated, is cutting back. But not our General Assembly.

Perhaps they’re trying to spend our $200 million surplus on themselves before they have to give it back.

Or perhaps they need it for more Bibles and other holy books. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mario Cattabiani reports that taxpayers paid $13,700 for these swearing-in hand-rests for 220 of 253 lawmakers. Click here for the story. Note especially Rep. Chris Ross, R-Chester, and ask yourself, “Has he heard of libraries? Or book stores?”

Maybe he could visit the $28,200 personal library Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Phila, charged to taxpayers a few years ago.

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