|Hon. Stephen Baratta|
What are row offices? Historically, they were located in a row next to the courtrooms. They often have strange sounding names like Prothonotary, Clerk of Quarter Sessions and Orphans' Court. Basically, they are where court papers are filed in civil and criminal matters. They are where people go when they get a marriage license, or open an estate for a deceased relative.
In addition to being a repository for court records, these offices serve another important function. Indices and other dockets provide notice to the world of the existence of liens, estates and other matters that have a direct impact on people and their lives.
In Northampton County, the row offices are called the Civil Division (Prothonotary), Criminal Division (Clerk of Courts) and Orphans Court. The department heads report to a Director of Court Services, a cabinet position set up in the Home Rule Charter. But basically, they are an arm of the court. Mat Benol invited President Judge Stephen Baratta about the possibility of taking control of these offices.
Judge Baratta believes "we could run the offices," but told Council that the courts would want control over the hiring process.
Noting there are currently six vacancies in the Civil Division, including one that goes back to October, he called the office "grossly understaffed," and warned that there are problems created by a delay in indexing judgments.
In the Criminal Division, where five of 13 positions are vacant, Judge Baratta said Things are "even worse."
|John Brown agrees that courts should take over|
row offices in time.
Baratta stated there should be a baseline for hiring, and that once staffing goes below a certain level, hiring should commence immediately. He also is interested in cross-training clerks so they can all do at least some of the more routine work in each office.
Though Executive John Brown agrees that these offices belong under the courts' jurisdiction, he said that he is creating efficiencies in these offices through the use of technology, and has made "significant improvements in the backlog." He said he'd like to finish some of his work before turning the offices over to the courts.
Brown cited as an example the online civil index recently implemented. But that system incorrectly advised users that information was up-to-date, when it was in fact weeks behind. This kind of error, since corrected, could cost the County millions of dollars in liability for liens that it has failed to index properly.
Brown also mentioned the use of technology, although the state Supreme Court is currently working on technology that it intends to mandate in all 67 counties Brown spoke of the same data having to be entered repeatedly, without appreciating that redundancy is a necessary requirement in row offices, where the information posted about an individual must be accurate.
"With all due respect," Judge Baratta stated, "they're [the Brown administration] not involved in what the clerks do." In contrast, the judges are involved in the legal system, and understand the rules as well as the reason for them.
"We can offer our services if you need us," Judge Baratta concluded. "We're all public servants."
"Sounds like a deal you can't refuse coming from a President Judge," observed Bob Werner.