Former Blair County Commissioner William C. Stouffer was ecstatic 25 years ago when the state Supreme Court ruled that the General Assembly was responsible for funding the county court system.
Stouffer began talking immediately about how the county could use the additional hundreds of thousands of dollars freed up by the decision to fund the increasing mandates for services being imposed on the county by state officials.
Despite the euphoria created by the long-ago ruling, the battle rages on between the counties and state government over court funding.
The Supreme Court's desire to create a constitutionally-accepted "unified court system" in the state's 67 counties remains unresolved with the state assuming little of the local court system's expense.
Now that money to operate government is tighter than ever, the state's highest court this week refused to issue a blanket order in an attempt to force the General Assembly to assume a billion or more dollars in expenses to fund the Pennsylvania courts.
Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille wrote in his ruling that prior actions in 1987 and 1996 that mandated the state assume the expense of operating the courts are out-of-date.
The Pennsylvania Association of County Commissioners and nine counties had asked the Supreme Court to order the General Assembly to fund the courts.
During the last 25 years, the state has taken steps to assume control of the administrative end of the courts by designating court administrators and their deputies - in Blair County that includes Janice Meadows and Madeline Shea, respectively - as state employees.
A statewide courts computer system has also been implemented.
But other recommendations that the state pay for offices such as the Register of Wills and Recorder of Deeds, the Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts, the Domestic Relations Office, the Adult and Juvenile Probation offices, the Law Library, and other court offices, are only under discussion.
Castille pointed out that the movement that has taken place stems from cooperation between the counties, the state legislature and the governor's office.
"The situation is not now as it was in 1996, when the court was faced with legislative inaction. Trusting in the continuation of this cooperative process, representing the best of government in action, we decline to require further specific legislative action," Castille wrote.
The state's judiciary was underfunded by $94 million, not keeping pace with the basic needs of the system, the Supreme Court ruling stated.
Blair County Commissioner Chairman Terry Tomassetti, who was still studying the opinion Thursday, said the county has learned not to count on the state.
He said the state has yet to pay the full salaries of the district attorneys as was promised.
Blair County Controller Richard Peo, who had reviewed the opinion, said the judges' offices, probation offices, magisterial district judges, constables and law library will cost the county $3.3 million in 2012.
Commissioners' association Executive Director Doug Hill said the counties are "disappointed," but he also saw a bright side to the opinion.
The Supreme Court refused to vacate the rulings made in 1987 and 1996, and he said there is cooperation between the counties and state government as they take a look at which court functions should come under the purview of the state.
"We need to work toward this," he said.
State Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, said he understands the viewpoint of county officials.
Stern was the Blair County Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts before going to Harrisburg, and he said it was always a concern of county officials that the state government would issue mandates to the counties but not fund them.
Stern said the state has the same problem with the federal government.
The General Assembly never approved fully funding the county court systems because of the cost, Stern said.
State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, said there has been improvement on funding over the years, and pointed out the General Assembly will be providing some funding to aid with housing of prisoners in county jails.
The other side of the story is that Castille could do a better job of administrating the courts, Eichelberger said.
Eichelberger pointed out the judges kept their raises rather than giving them up and refuse to diminish any of their benefits.
Cutbacks could be made in the numbers of common pleas and magisterial district judges, he said.
Blair County only recently reduced the number of magisterial judges from seven to six, Eichelberger said, using that as an example of things that could be done at the state level to ease the burdens on the counties.
The Supreme Court stated it was "optimistic" that recent cooperation will continue.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.