ROBERT SWIFT: Capitol Matters: Workings of the state court system
HARRISBURG - Its been a year of high-profile cases before the state courts and with that Judge Correale F. Stevens is putting more of a spotlight on the Superior Court where he's presiding judge.
Mr. Stevens of Hazleton gave a briefing last week on the operations of the 15-member Superior Court which along with the Supreme Court and Commonwealth Court form the three-tier appellate court system.
The Superior Court handles about 8,000 appeals annually which include criminal cases and cases where lower courts have issued rulings that are in conflict with another court's ruling.
The Commonwealth Court handles first appeals or legal challenges of laws dealing with voting issues like the controversial voter photo identification act and those involving local government and state agencies.
The Supreme Court decides which of the thousands of appellate cases that it wants to take. These cases often deal with major policy decisions.
The Superior Court is broadening its public outreach by holding community sessions outside the court seats at Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and posting rulings and other actions involving high-profile cases prominently on its web site at www.superior.pacourts.us, said Mr. Stevens.
Currently on the website are court actions relating to the pending capital murder trial of Hugo Selenski of Luzerne County for the 2002 killings of pharmacist Michael Kerkowski and girlfriend Tammy Fassett. Another high-profile case involves the sentencing appeal by former Sen. Jane Orie, the Pittsburgh Republican, who is now a state prison inmate following a conviction for using legislative staff to do political fundraising and campaign work and forging documents used in her defense.
The community sessions give local residents an opportunity to watch first-hand as a three-judge panel hears arguments from attorneys in appeals cases. The court held a session at Lackawanna College last May and plans one next year Dallas Area High School.
"The court is definitely committed to going into the community more," said Mr. Stevens.
Another innovation is the fast-tracking of appeal cases involving children in such matters as adoption, custody and parental rights. These cases are listed first on dockets and the deadlines to file briefs are half that for other cases. The fast-track is a recognition that time is of essence when young lives are involved, added Mr. Stevens.
Senate hearing Thursday
The Senate Local Government Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on the debt burden of the authority running Harrisburg's aging trash incinerator. The city is struggling under a $300 million debt tied to the incinerator and a forensic audit has raised questions about how bonds issued to retrofit the incinerator led to the debt.
The hearing has implications beyond Harrisburg because senators are looking at state laws governing municipal authorities and whether criteria is needed for financial transactions known as interest-free swaps.
As the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. John Blake, D-22, Archbald, will play a major role in the hearing.