Op/Ed: State Courts seek to control county row office operations

Judiciary hungry to seize fees that help keep local taxes down

By Terri Clark, Chester County Register of Wills


Terri Clark

With Pennsylvania locked in a five-month budget impasse, the state’s Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) is creating something that already exists at public expense.  As our schools and non-profits suffer without state funding, AOPC is developing a computer system to manage all of Pennsylvania’s 67 county registers’ of wills and orphans’ court clerks’ offices.  It is proceeding with this project without any sensitivity to Pennsylvania’s financial problems, and ignoring the overwhelming opposition expressed by most of the end users of the proposed system. 

Currently, most Pennsylvania registers of wills and clerks of the orphans’ court use privately licensed software systems to manage their offices. Local officials, consulting with constituents and members of the bar, choose systems which best meet their office needs through competitively and publicly bid contracts.  Counties have made significant monetary investments in the software, which AOPC would have counties sacrifice under its plan. 

County registers’, clerks and sympathetic legislators have been imploring the judiciary to consider a less costly alternative.  The easiest alternative is for counties to transfer data they are already collecting to the state court system, which can use it in any lawful manner. 

The AOPC has suggested that its system is necessary for “judicial uniformity” from county to county. Any such issue is not caused by the software system but by differing local court rules and procedures.  Local rules and court administrators are under the direct control of the judiciary, while registers of wills and other county row offices are independently elected and constitutionally obligated to manage their own affairs.  If the state judiciary truly wanted uniform practice, it would first address the matters under its direct control. 

Court related row offices in most counties are profit centers contributing to the operating budgets of their counties and decreasing overall property tax burdens.  The judiciary is hungry to control the filing offices.  In the past, the judiciary has expressed interest in circumventing the provisions of the state constitution and judicial code and transferring these duties to its supervision.  The end game is clear.  The judiciary wants the monies generated by county offices appropriated back to it in order to support its massive bureaucracy.  That the AOPC not only wants control of the filings, but of the accounting, cashiering and credit card processing of the county offices illuminates this goal.  If the state judiciary centrally controls the software, then it effectively controls the day to day operations of the offices.  This runs afoul of the separation of powers ensconced in the state constitution.

The courts have bristled at the suggestion that they, like so many Pennsylvania families, do more with less.  As of mid-August, the AOPC employed more than 250 people in its IT department alone, expending more than $6.5 million dollars in fringe benefits, $ 4.3 million in pension contributions each year and $ 18.4 million in salaries.  By bringing systems currently managed by outside vendors in house, these costs will only expand.  By working with existing technology, many of these expenses could be reduced or redirected to underfunded programs.  AOPC should scrap this monumental waste of scarce public resources.

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