|Ott with NC right-winger Hayden Phillips|
Lehigh County Comm'r Lisa Scheller proposed slashing the judicial budget by about $146,000. "It's not directed at employees," she disingenuously explained, but it certainly was. It eliminated the funding for four tipstaffs.
Let me start by telling you about tipstaffs. Charlie Dent's mom was one, incidentally. Juries loved her. As one judge recently explained to me, it takes a special person. So the best tipstaffs are full-timers who are paid low wages but have to be there when the judge is there. Part-timers don't work because most jury trials are settled at the last minute, leading a person to schedule himself at the courthouse for nothing.
Why are they needed? According to what President Judge Carol McGinley told Commissioners, they make judges more productive. "My attention needs to be focused entirely on the litigants and the case in front of me," she explained. "Every time I'm interrupted by a crying baby, somebody who looks lost, somebody who can't speak English and needs interpretation services, these things all slow my productivity and actually interrupt the rights of the litigants in front of me to give them my full attention."
The persons who prevent mistrials, which can cost a County between $100,000 and $500,000, are the tipstaffs. Judge McGinley noted that if a Protection from Abuse (PFA) case is dismissed because some battered woman is unknowingly sitting in the wrong courtroom and there's no tipstaff to direct her where to go, that woman is at risk and could be hurt.
Several years ago, the judges made a commitment to work with less, but Judge McGinley told Commissioners that experiment is failing. Thy are needed most urgently during jury trials and when there are long lists.
By their nature, jury trials are terribly inefficient. Ask any juror. You can't get around it. But that inefficient process, which consists of long periods of time in which judges, litigants and tipstaffs sit on their hands, is the cornerstone to our American system of justice. It's embedded in the Constitution that tea partiers claim to embrace. And these older men and women, just like the older men and woman at polling precincts, preserve our democracy.
Before there's a jury trial, there are long lists in which 50 to 100 people can be jammed into a courtroom and adjoining hallways at the same time. A battered woman and the man who beat her. Witnesses and the gang members who would like them to shut up. Most of the courtrooms are simply too small to hold everyone. Tipstaffs identify parties and lawyers in a case. They separate people. They prioritize cases and get them before a judge. They smell out trouble and alert deputies. This requires two people at a minimum. One deals with the public while the other manages the actual courtroom proceedings for the judge.
As society has changed, things have become worse for the courts. Where do you think the dregs of society end up? Did you know most of them have no lawyers? They are also the first recourse for many people who really need help from our judicial system.
Judge McGinley explained all this, and more, to Commissioners. DA Jim Martin, who has practiced law for 40 years, had her back.
Commissioner Scott Ott seemed to not only buy into the argument, but suggested that it might be necessary to increase staffing.
"That scenario you just painted is a frightful one. People could get hurt. The County could get hit with hundreds of thousands of dollars of additional expenses. Perfectly good cases could get thrown out. ... If that's the situation and that's a legitimate and clear and present danger, wouldn't it be irresponsible to not fully staff those other courtrooms?
He told Judge McGinley, "What you said was pretty scary stuff. Yet we don't seem to be taking the action. I know we're pinching every penny twice and there's no more money available everywhere. But it would seem to me that the costs by what you said would be far outweighed by the benefits of staffing these other courtrooms, so I guess I'm wondering how is it tolerable for us to allow that low staffing level, but it's intolerable for us to do it in another courtroom?
McGinley: "Comm'r Ott, if you're suggesting that because we haven't asked for those three back, that my objections to removing four more are not legitimate, I disagree with the proposition.
Ott: "No, that's not what I'm suggesting. I'm seriously concerned. What you just described sounds like another penny wise, pound foolish thing where we're going to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, have court cases thrown out, and have people potentially be injured because we don't staff appropriately. If that's legitimate, and you say it is, then we've got a different situation on our hands here than I was previously aware. By the way, not until tonight had I heard that this experiment is failing.
But when it was time to vote on Scheller's motion to cut funding, Ott went along with his so-called reform team and against his own arguments.
30 pieces of silver. His most recent campaign finance report reveals that GOP party boss Wayne Woodman and his wife Lisa Scheller, just contributed $30,000 to Ott's campaign. This is the same Lisa Scheller who proposed eliminating this funding for the judges. Though Ott claimed that it was "irresponsible" not to have those tipstaffs, he had to listen to his paymaster instead of doing what was right.
Ott actually got more than 30 pieces of silver. He reports $46,480 from the My Lehigh County PAC that GOP party boss Wayne Woodman and Lisa Scheller control. That's her money.
That night, Comm'r Brad Osborne said, "I'd hate to make a decision that is not based out of knowledge, and have something bad come out of it."
But Ott is willing to take that risk for the right amount of money.