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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Updated: NorCo's Entitled Law Clerks

Numerous Northampton County workers are paid far less than their counterparts in other governments or the private sector. Human Relations Director Amy Trapp acknowledged this at a recent Council meeting. But yes, there are overpaid County workers, too. Not only do they have a negative impact on morale, but they impose a burden on taxpayers that Northampton Council should refuse to shoulder when they adopt next year's budget. In addition to getting paid more than they deserve, these workers also are able to supplement their incomes with stipends about which Council was never informed. Some are also permitted to moonlight, even though their outside work is a direct conflict of interest with what they do at the County. But they are an entitled bunch, and are protected by Northampton County's judges. I'm referring to the County's nine judicial law clerks.    

The Culture of the Northampton County Judiciary 

Northampton County currently has nine sitting judges, one senior judge, six special court masters, two guardians ad litem and nine judicial law clerks. Each of these judges has his own little parking spot, which is usually empty. They all have their own private little entrance into the courthouse, so they don't have to dirty themselves by mingling with the vulgari. The $43 million courthouse expansion was actually built to isolate them. It surprises me they haven't thought of palanquins, but give them time.

While the judges are isolated from the public they are supposed to serve, ostensibly for reasons of security, the public is treated like garbage. If you visit the courthouse and don't know the secret spots, you can drive around for forty minutes before you find a place at the bottom of Mount Everest, which you must climb to get inside the courthouse. Assuming you survive, you're searched if you're lucky enough to find the real entrance to the courthouse. This, of course, is at the most inconvenient spot for the general public.

You'll be inside three times longer than you anticipated. Occasionally, a judge will walk by, surrounded by a phalanx of 18' tall Deputy Sheriffs. Security, you know. Their names are blotted out on assessment records, too, while your property is there for one and all to see.

Once you leave, pray that the Panto Parking Police have spared you.

Employees go through this, too. They are used to most of it, but the not-so-hidden message is that you and they are second class citizens.

Individually, judges are great people and actually very down-to-earth. Some, like Baratta, Zito and Koury, are very hard workers. But collectively, they represent what's wrong with our whole system of governance. They do nothing to inspire confidence in our judiciary. They do everything to breed cynicism in government. 

Bureau of labor Standards: NorCo Judicial Law Clerks Overpaid     

This is the culture that a recent law school graduate faces when he becomes a judicial law clerk. He sees a system of entitlement and a "us v. them" attitude. It's hard to avoid developing a condescending attitude, which eventually ensnares most law clerks

This is the exact reverse of the way things should be. Historically, a judicial law clerk is like an intern. He or she is someone who just graduated from law school and spends one or two years with a lousy salary under the wings of a judge. The whole point is to turn a recent law school grad into a good lawyer, and then kick him out and in bring someone new. The judge is a mentor. The clerk is his protégé.

But that's changing. A few years ago, then Court Administrator Jim Onembo demanded that the salaries for law clerks be raised so that the County could be "competitive." Since that time, starting salaries for judicial law clerks have continued to climb in Northampton County.

The current starting salary is $57,925.71, the same amount of money paid to an Assistant DA or Assistant PD. That's just ridiculous. A prosecutor and public defender can put in an 80-hour work week if he's trying a case. They hold people's lives in their hands while a clerk holds a judge's robe. It is simply unconscionable that a judicial law clerk would make anywhere near what these trial lawyers earn. This starting salary is also well above the $43,770 annual mean wage paid to county law clerks in Pennsylvania, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

This salary is much too high, especially since most of these clerks are only putting in 20 or 30-hour weeks.

Because they are being paid 32% more than the average mean wage reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for Pennsylvania, these law clerks are reluctant to leave the warm embrace of public sector employment after one or two years and face the cold, hard legal world

Though I've never heard anyone say he wants to be a judicial law clerk when he grows up, that has become a career path for three of Northampton County's nine judicial law clerks. Holly Frompovicz was hired 8/14/06, and currently earns $66,102.82. Stephanie Spencer was hired on 8/13/07, and her salary is $66,102.82 as well. Heather Charnegie started on 8/11/08 and rakes in $63,256.34.

Three of Northampton County's nine judicial law clerks have been working for the judges 8-10 years. In addition to shackling the taxpayer with salaries that are completely out of proportion to what they do, they are now all vested in the pension, so we will be paying for them a long time.

Northampton County's remaining six law clerks have been with the county for two and a half years or less, and are paid $57,925.71.

At a Budget Hearing on October 26, President Judge Stephen Baratta defended the salary, indicating his own law clerk puts in a 40-hour week and this is appropriate compensation for a new attorney. "I can't speak for other offices," he said.      

He also indicated that some judges like having a "seasoned" law clerk. I'm sure they do, but it defeats the whole purpose of clerkships.  

NorCo Judicial Law Clerks Paid $110,225 in Stipends Since 2010

In addition to making this a career, these law clerks are receiving stipends above and beyond what is authorized by Council. They are essentially getting extra money for doing their job.

If you go to the Civil Division and file a passport application, no clerk would dream of charging you extra money for her own work in helping you. If she did, she'd likely be prosecuted for theft and would certainly be fired on the spot.

But for the entitled, the rules are different.

In divorce actions, when the parties are ready to wrap things up, they pay a fee to the Civil Division, and ask the judge to issue a decree.

These are parceled out to the law clerks, and they are paid $25 for every divorce case they review, above and beyond what they are already being paid. Council was never made aware of this when it set the salaries for this entitled group. I doubt very much that Executive John Brown or his predecessor, John Stoffa, was ever made aware of this abuse.

It should be halted immediately.

That $25 adds up. Since 2010, law clerks have been paid $110,225 to process divorces, something for which they already receive a salary. The three clerks I mentioned above have done rather nicely. Frompovicz has been paid $13,300 and Spencer has been paid $13,375 in addition to their $66,102.82 salaries. Charnegie has raked in $12,225 on top of her $63,256.34 salary, too

The remaining six clerks have all participated in this abuse as well, to a lesser extent.

This conduct is a violation of the Code of Conduct that applies to judicial law clerks:
"Employees of the Unified Judicial System are appropriately compensated for the performance of their duties and shall not solicit or accept any additional compensation or anything of value from any other source for performing the duties and responsibilities of their position."
Clerks should receive no compensation for doing what they are already paid to do. This money belongs in the county's coffers, not their pockets.

These clerks also do not pay fees to belong to the Bar Association, which violates the Code of Conduct. 

President Judge Baratta indicated he had nothing to do with establishing, managing or paying out this stipend. He is a correct. It is a vestige of the days when law clerks were paid far less, and that money now belongs in county coffers.  

Are NorCo Law Clerks Moonlighting For Outside Attorneys?

As bad as the exorbitant salary and stipends are, what's even worse is that some of these law clerks are moonlighting for outside attorneys, writing briefs and doing "research." This is the report I have received from three different sources at the courthouse. Any judge who did this would be removed from the bench. That's precisely what should happen to the law clerks who have whored themselves out to lawyers who are obviously trying to succor favor with the judges.

Though they may consider themselves entitled and above everyone, the Code of Conduct applying to them bars this kind of work.

"A fair and independent court system is essential to the administration of justice. Proper conduct by employees of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania (UJS) inspires public confidence and trust in the courts, and conveys the values of impartiality and fairness that promote the integrity of the work of the Unified Judicial System. 

***
"Employees of the Unified Judicial System shall not solicit, accept or agree to accept anything of value from any person or entity doing or seeking to do business with, or having an interest in a matter before, the court or court-related entity by which they are employed ... ."

Northampton County Council has the authority, under its Home Rule Charter, to request special reports from elected officials and their subordinates.  The Court will be at a Budget Hearing today and should be asked to explain what its clerks are doing, and what steps the judges are taking to cut off the stipend and ban work with outside law firms.

President Judge Baratta indicated that the Code of Conduct has been changed to allow outside employment, but he refuses to permit his clerk to work for outside attorneys. He failed to state whether other judges allow their clerks to moonlight. My information is that some do,and it involves attorneys who practice in Northampton County. It is an obvious conflict of interest and needs to end.     

The Courts' Budget Needs Better Explanation 

The Problem Solving Court Budget is a problem. It’s proposing a 50.9% increase in personnel, with absolutely no explanation of who those people are or what each of them is being paid.  One rumor floating around is that one of the law clerks is already being paid as program administrator. I am unable to confirm what is happening, but that is why there are budget hearings.   

Judge Craig Dally told Council he would supply the details explaining how exactly it willbe funded. 

Appendix: Law Clerk salaries, hire dates and divorce stipends 

Abigail Bellafato - $57,925.71. Hired 8/8/16. $125 in divorce stipends
Holly Frompovicz - $66,102.82 Hired 8/14/06. $13,300 in divorce stipends
Jordan Knisley - $57,925.71. Hired 8/10/15. $2,325 in divorce stipends
Heather Charnegie - $63,256.34. Hired 8/11/08. $12,225 in divorce stipends
Matt Alkon - $57,925.71. Hired 8/11/14. $4,175 in divorce stipends
Sara Moyer - $$57,925.71. Hired 8/22/16. $0 in divorce stipends.
Stephanie Spencer - $66,102.82. Hired 8/13/07. $13,375 in divorce stipends
Holly Huerta - $57,925.71. Hired 1/2/14. $5,200 in divorce stipends
Kelly Fackentrhall - $57,925.71. Hired 8/10/15. $3,650 in divorce stipends

Blogger's Note: Originally published 10/26/16 at 5:06 pm. 

38 comments:

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree that this situation is ridiculous but it will never change. The insiders are for themselves and Joe Taxpayer not only has no idea this stuff goes on, he's too busy working to pay his property taxes.

Anonymous said...

The reason courts rule the day is because no county executives or county councils have ever stood up to them. The idea that county executives don't know what the courts spends on things is nonsense, as you well know. A county executive whom says otherwise is lying or incompetent.

The judges have always ruled in county government and that isn't going to change anytime soon. You ought to tell people some of the reason why executives an councils won't go against the court, as in the hammers the court has at its disposal.

Anonymous said...

Excellent reporting Bernie. Did the judges know this was going on? Especially the P. J.?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Judge Johnnie B Good, I deleted you bc you left a huge gap at the end of your comment.

Bernie O'Hare said...

11:27, PJ Baratta was apparently unaware that the stipend payments continue and hopefully will end the practice. He does not allow his clerk to do research for attorneys, but if you read between the lines, I think other judges do. It needs to end.

Bernie O'Hare said...

11:24, I myself was unaware of the practice until recently. I doubt any recent Executives knew about it.

Anonymous said...

Bernie what you are asserting is amazing to say the least. If I am interpreting your post correctly, t5hse clerks receive money due to a practice no one knows about, no one authorized or remembers who authorized it. It alleges that even the President judge and apparently the Dir. of Court Admisntration are all clueless as to a practice that is rooted in mystery. Paid form a line item that does not exist.
Is this an accurate account or is it more or less bizarre?

Bernie O'Hare said...

I don't think the practice is rooted in mystery. It goes back to many years ago, and no one apparently has thought about it for some time. PJ Baratta said as much. That's $110k that belongs in county coffers, not the pockets of clerks. I believe Judge Baratta will look into the matter.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"The judges have always ruled in county government and that isn't going to change anytime soon."

By and large, the judges are usually right in these turf wars. But there are times when they are doing something wrong, and they have changed when it is brought to their attention.

Anonymous said...

Which clerks work for which judges? A number of Norco judges suffer from black robe syndrome and I would bet that those judges' clerks are the most entitled...

Anonymous said...

Also, I've wondered for a while what kind of staff some judges have. One judge, for example, seems to have a while posse every time I see him in court. It's possible that it's just his tip staff, law clerk and some unpaid interns but I don't know. A couple of them just sit silently, texting on their phones all afternoon. And I've seen the same ones for years so if they are interns then it's the longest internship I've ever seen!

Anonymous said...

The County NEEDS a job/salary study done. It has been way too long. Some employees (judicial not included) are not being bad fairly for what they do. Some high paid employees are rarely seen in the building during regular work hours. Too much unfairness.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. It was in our previous contract (ct appointed prof) for the county to do a wage survey but the county never did it and there were never any consequences. A lot of good people who worked in my office are now working for Lehigh County where they're paid more fairly.

Anonymous said...

The elite [judges] have always ruled the roost. Both the County Executive and Council, historically, do not question their budgets, policies or procedures. And this is a travesty within itself. This whole system, which has become an extremely large section of the annual budget, should be job and salary audited, in which the citizens, via referendum, can support or reject. This is because the elected officials do not have the guts, fortitude and willingness to challenge the elite. Therefore, good governance completely fails and we the taxpayers pay the bill. NC is a cesspool of corruption, deceit and back-door congratulating.

Anonymous said...

Keeping clerks and at that pay level is so wrong. Young lawyers need to move through the system. When I left my clerkship I was struck by the irony of being in the center of the courts and discovering that I had no clue about what the practice of law was all about. These young people need to get out into the real world. Judges do them no favors by rationalizing the experience factor. Judges need to be faithful to the learning opportunities they provide for young lawyers.

Untouched Takeaway said...

The salaries shock me, because frankly I think they're low. I'm paid a tad more and I only have an AA degree. I do work in NJ, but not in the legal field.

What I do not agree with are the stipends. Work is work and your salary covers that.

UT~

Anonymous said...

As a former law clerk in Northampton County (just about 30 years ago at this point), I can confirm that the $25 stipend is a vestige of those days....When i started, the salary was a bit less than 17k....yes costs were less but as a newly minted lawyer, i had student loans to pay. The divorce review stipend was a way to supplement the salary. I am a bit surprised that it still exists given the much more competitive salary offered to new clerks currently. I am shocked though that the amount of the stipend hasn't changed in all these years. I agree that the purpose of the clerkship was more so to learn first hand from the judge. One of the reasons i took the clerkship, despite the horrible salary, was because in Northampton County clerks get to go to court virtually every day. That was not the way other county clerkships were structured. However, back then it was rare for the clerkship to last beyond one year and NEVER more than 2 years. I served for 2 years mostly because the Judge i worked for was running for election in my second year and he asked me to stay so that he did not have to worry about a transition with a new clerk. By the end of the second year, i could not wait to be in practice, no matter how much i enjoyed the clerkship and respected my boss, it was time to move on. I do not think that the salaries today are outlandish...If you want good clerks from solid schools, you need to pay a competitive salary. However, there is no reason for the job to be a "lifetime appointment" and the reason for the divorce review stipend no longer exists.

alfonso todd said...

Bernie, you better bulletproof your car and windows... You are messing with people's livelihood and hustles.... LOL! Great reporting. It seems like good work if you can get it...

- Alfonso Todd

P.S. Let's have lunch soon since my office is now on your side of town.

Anonymous said...

This is a clear violation of the Northampton County Home Rule Charter and the County Administrative Code.These obvious conflicts of interest must be ended immediately. Judges are not above the law and ignorance of the law is no excuse. Ask any judge.

Anonymous said...

Bernie, when you get time, go to disbursement so and ask for a printout of the expenses to the county being paid to the court reporters!

Bernie O'Hare said...

I have a print out of the divorce stipends. Why would there be other expenses? I can file a RTK, but are you wasting my time? And it is a question of time. My time is limited, so do not send me on a wild goose chase. Why would I seek this information? Explain.

Bernie O'Hare said...

8:44, i appreciate your perspective, especially as a former clerk. I'll agree that there are contrary views about this salary.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Which clerks work for which judges? A number of Norco judges suffer from black robe syndrome and I would bet that those judges' clerks are the most entitled..."

I'll answer that question if you identify yourself. I am not interested in singling people out. I am interested in ending a bad practice.

Anonymous said...

Though I didn't post the 11:14 - I can respond to your 12:08 about the 11:14. From what I know court reporters earn a salary plus get extra stipend payouts as well.

Anonymous said...

Identify myself and piss of the judges? No thanks.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Though I didn't post the 11:14 - I can respond to your 12:08 about the 11:14. From what I know court reporters earn a salary plus get extra stipend payouts as well."

Court reporters are a completely different situation. I did not pay close enough attention to your comment. They are certainly entitled to expenses. I have very high regard for them and what they do.

Anonymous said...

I believe the employees have shouldered most of if not all of the burden with huge medical cost increases and no step raises for many years. Why not reveal the entire story rather than just bits and pieces. Yes, county employees got raises last year but most of that if not all was offset with historic medical cost increases that Brown said was mandatory to avoid a Cadillac tax which we all knew was a bold face lie. Now, this year employees are getting a 2% or so raise. What the public doesn't realize is that the county is fine with giving out these small raises. The county doesn't care about its workforce. They haven't given out step raise in 5-6 years if not longer. what's the incentive to stay with the county? Meanwhile some employees give massive raises which only causes more issues.

Anonymous said...

Bernie,
The same can be said for the county to the west, an instance of a currently retired paralegal working under this administrations head prosicuter?

Bernie O'Hare said...

I am going to look into an issue concerning court reporters. I think I more fully understand the point now. Hope it is untrue.

Anonymous said...

Bernie,

A few questions about your article:

1. Do you know if the divorce decree preparation is something that the law clerks are required to do as part of job or is this something the clerks do in addition to their other job responsibilities? If it's something extra, then I don't think the $110,225.00 over the course of 6 years is really that much-- roughly $18,000.00 per year. If the clerks stopped doing them wouldn't the county have to hire another employee to handle all of them? Surely that would cost the county far more than $18,000 per year.

2. Are you saying that your sources know for a fact these law clerks are doing research for lawyers in cases that are actually filed in Northampton County? The Code of Conduct rule you cite seems to be a bit ambiguous regarding whether a clerk is forbidden doing research for lawyers on cases not filed in Northampton County. The "any person or entity doing or seeking to do business with, or having an interest in a matter before" language could be interpreted as forbidding a law clerk from doing for a lawyer that is/has been "doing or seeking to do business" any time, ever, or forbidding a law clerk from doing work for a case filed in Northampton County. The latter I would certainly have a problem with, but I'm not that concerned with law clerks doing research for cases in other counties or federal court. Perhaps you and others feel differently, but I highly doubt its being done so that the lawyers gain some sort of favor with the court.

3. Why is it such a big deal that some of the judges decide to keep their law clerks beyond 1-2 years? Shouldn't the judge be able to decide who their law clerk is? Maybe the law clerks that have been there enjoy being a law clerk. Federal judges frequently have life-long clerks. Just because a clerkship has traditionally been a 1-2 year position doesn't mean that you or I should have any say in whether or not a judge decides to keep a clerk beyond the traditional time frame. Is it really a bad thing that we have experienced law clerks contributing to decisions that affect people's lives?

4. The salaries might be a bit high compared to other counties, but when the vast majority of law grads have, on average, over $100,000.00 in student loan debt I don't really think that $57k is that high considering the costs/debt they've incurred to be eligible for the position. Hasn't there always been a mindset in this country that the benefit of advanced degrees is the potential to make more? Don't teachers and other people with professional degrees have a starting salary in the same ballpark?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thank you very much for your questions . I will post them in my answers in a separate blog tomorrow

Anonymous said...

Guessing that 4:38 is one of the law clerks.

Anonymous said...

Definitely a law clerk. There's revenue protection in that there post...

Anonymous said...

I object to funding law clerks' pensions. They don't deserve this perk as interns. Shame on judges who keep them on for years knowing our taxes will go toward supporting these workers.

Anonymous said...

4:38 says law school expense justifies high clerk salary? What a sense of entitlement! I guess a fledgling actor playing bit parts should be paid the same as a major movie star for that matter, huh?

Bernie O'Hare said...

This is historically a temporary job lasting one or two years. When it becomes a permanent position, the salary goes up every year and a pension is vested in five years. This is a drain on the taxpayer for the convenience of an entitled group. Council should adopt an ordinance classifying the position as a temporary position lasting no more than two years.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Bernie. Thanks for bringing this issue to light. now let's act on it!! Have a great night.

Anonymous said...

4:38, to your point #3....BECAUSE YOU DO NOT DESERVE A PENSION. The pension system that will ultimately bankrupt the county and drive property taxes through the roof. Save your own money for retirement while working part time for county plus moonlighting elsewhere.

Your point #4...Seriously? Airline pilots come out of college and training with similar debt and get paid $25k/yr. to start. Why don't you donate some of your measly part time $57k salary towards their debt? They have your life in their hands...you do administrative work part time.