Authority for Luzerne County Court raises questioned

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -
Shucosky -

When pressed at a public meeting, Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri said he did not approve 3 percent raises recently granted to 94 non-union county court employees.

Citizen Walter Griffith, who raised the issue, asserted pay increases without the manager’s consent violate the county home rule charter in effect since 2012.

“Obviously, the judiciary is not an island of their own,” Griffith told council.

The public was left hanging.

“That’s a good question, and I don’t have the current answer,” council Chairman Tim McGinley told Griffith.

While it wasn’t hashed out in public, both county Court Administrator Michael Shucosky and county Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo say they are confident the court has authority to provide raises under the charter, as long as the expenditure is covered by the budget allocated by council.

“We are an island,” Shucosky said of courts.

As an example, Shucosky points to section 6.07 of the charter, which says the manager has the power to implement uniform administrative procedures, regulations and forms to be followed by all county departments, including the judiciary.

“However, nothing in this section shall be construed as interfering with the inherent and constitutional rights and powers possessed by the judiciary to do all things as are reasonably necessary for the administration of justice,” the same paragraph says.

Charter language debated

Another section, 6.05, says all court employees are subject to the council-approved personnel, ethics and administrative codes, but with this same disclaimer against interfering with the court’s power over the administration of justice, including hiring, firing and supervising court-appointed personnel.

“The charter, by its own language in numerous places, makes it very clear the court is a separate entity and not subject to control by county council or the manager,” Shucosky said. “It’s akin to the independence of the Supreme Court from the president or Congress.”

Numerous court cases reaffirm the court’s independence under separation of power doctrine in both the federal and state constitutions, Shucosky said.

Crocamo said sentences of the county’s charter and personnel code can’t be “read in a vacuum.”

Courts indisputably have control over hiring, firing and supervising their personnel, she said. The county administration could not effectively determine if raises are warranted for court workers it does not oversee, Crocamo said.

“For county management to interfere with the particular pay increases of personnel that the courts supervise and control would arguably be an interference in the administration of justice,” Crocamo said.

What can council do?

Council has significant “power of the purse” in approving the budget, Crocamo said.

But once the legislative branch — county council — sets the budget financing the judicial branch, control over how that funding is used rests with the court, Shucosky said.

He was quick to stress court officials take council’s budget “very seriously” and have spent less than allocated during his six years as administrator. Court officials also realize there is only “one pie” that must be divided among many county departments, he said.

Urban blasts raises

Councilman Stephen A. Urban had blasted the court raises, saying court representatives were not publicly open about the likelihood increases would be granted during budget planning sessions.

Before home rule, court officials had to obtain county salary board approval at a public meeting to grant raises, Urban said. The three commissioners and elected controller sat on the salary board, and the president judge had a fifth vote on position changes in probation, domestic relations, magisterial district court offices, court administration and other judiciary branches.

Shucosky has said court officials did not commit to raises during the budget because they had to wait for a final council decision on their allocation.

The court raises will be funded by salary savings from keeping vacant positions unfilled and replacing some employees who leave with new workers who make less, he has said.

Griffith, who has launched a push to get a home rule study question on the election ballot, did not waver in his position at the council meeting.

“The judiciary does fall under the purview of the manager, contrary to what everybody here has been told,” he told council.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.