Archive for the ‘Government’ category

Delaware County Jump Starts Open Records Law

September 10, 2008

Delaware County was so excited about Pennsylvania’s recently adopted Open Records Law that it decided to speed up the process.

The County Council adopted a resolution Tuesday to provide for early implementation of the law, effective immediately. The state law doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2009.

“We are adopting the state’s new policy earlier than is required at the county level to expand our current policy to allow the public to benefit now from the changes,” County Council member Christine Fizzano Cannon said in a statement. “Council is committed to providing open access to public documents, which enables residents to have a better understanding of county government transactions.”

The benefits of the new law, Fizzano said, are the presumption that a record is a public record, a shift in the burden of proving a record is public and the ability to make requests electronically.

Exemptions to the Open Records Law include autopsy reports (with the exception of the name and manner of death), 911 tapes, written records of internal deliberations, information that would jeopardize computer security and personal information such as homes addresses and social security numbers, according to the statement.

The resolution establishes County Clerk Anne Coogan as the open records officer. The new open records policy is posted on the county’s Web site and a request form is also available.

— Gina Passarella, Senior Staff Reporter


Gov. Can’t Reject the Loaf Without Taking Away the Dough

August 20, 2008

A unanimous six-member Supreme Court ruled today that Gov. Edward G. Rendell may not veto language in an appropriations bill and leave the funding untouched.

The court reversed part of a Commonwealth Court case ruling that Rendell didn’t violate Article IV, Section 16 of the Pennsylvania Constitution when he rejected language defining an appropriation but didn’t disapprove the funding associated with the language.

The appropriation bill at issue in Jubelirer v. Rendell was the General Appropriation Act of 2005, which Rendell approved with seven exceptions. Three of those exceptions were over language in certain sections of the bill and not about the amount of money appropriated. Those sections dealt with Medicaid payments for outpatient services, provisions for closing state police barracks and infrastructure maintenance. The total appropriated under those three sections was a little more than $1 billion.

The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, ruled Rendell couldn’t veto language in the sections regarding Medicaid payments and police barracks but could veto language in the infrastructure section, finding that veto wasn’t solely over language.

“In summary, we hold that Article IV, Section 16 of the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits the governor from effectively vetoing portions of the language defining an appropriation without disapproving the funds with which the language is associated,” Castille said.

He was joined by Justices Max Baer, Thomas G. Saylor, J. Michael Eakin, Debra Todd and Seamus McCaffery.

Read more about the case in Thursday’s Legal.             

~Gina Passarella, Senior Staff Reporter

Legal Services Get Modest Increase in State Budget

July 9, 2008

State funding for legal services organizations hurting from a drop in grants from interest on lawyer trust accounts increased only $526,000 in the state budget process last week, said Samuel Milkes, executive director of Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, the statewide coordinating organization for 10 regional legal services programs and six specialized legal resource programs.

The state budget originally proposed increasing funding by $1 million.

Milkes said that because other appropriation items were slashed even more dramatically that legal services organizations were pleased that some increase was seen in the budget.

“We also realized when looking at the treatment of other lines it certainly represents support from the governor and the legislature that we very much appreciate,” Milkes said.

Total state funding, separate from a federal services block grant, is about $3.1 million.

The state funding for legal aid programs that provide direct services is distributed to PLAN, which then allocates according to the most recent census and the poverty populations in each area of the sate.

“We’re appreciative of the legislature and the governor,” Milkes said. “We also appreciate how much the Philadelphia bar and the Pennsylvania bar and lawyers around the state worked hard to see this increase.”

In interviews with The Legal, legal services organizations have said that every extra penny will help them because IOLTA grants are down 33 percent, or $7.3 million, statewide in the fiscal year that started July 1.

— Amaris Elliott-Engel, Staff Reporter

Branches of City Government Ready Mortgage Foreclosure Protection Plan

June 4, 2008

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has proposed $2 million in public funding to help Philadelphians impacted by the foreclosure crisis’ perfect storm of ballooning adjustable rate mortgages, predatory lending and slowing economy.

The City Council passed a resolution in March for a moratorium on sheriff’s sales of foreclosed homes, spurring Sheriff John Green’s delay of sheriff’s sales this spring until July.

The Common Pleas Court established a pilot program to divert properties set for sheriff’s sales into conciliation conferences to work out possible loan renegotiations.

Efforts of all three branches were packaged together during an announcement by Nutter Wednesday of a mortgage foreclosure protection program for Philadelphia.

“We are ready,” Judge Annette M. Rizzo said over and over again with President Judge C. Darnell Jones II, Councilman Curtis Jones, Administrative Judge D. Webster Keogh, Councilwoman Marian Tasco and Nutter standing beside her.

There were 6,200 foreclosure filings in Philadelphia last year, and 8,500 are expected this year.

Jones said the Resident Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Pilot Program allows court intervention in cases of already-pending owner-occupied mortgage foreclosures lawsuits. But he thanked the executive and legislative branches for their leadership on providing resources to residents whose troubled mortgages aren’t yet subject to a court case.

The city will provide $700,000 for housing counseling, $300,000 for legal services provided by Community Legal Services and $1 million in remortgaging funding for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency’s HERO program in the next fiscal year.

“We’re here to do the public good,” Jones said. “We are the public’s conscience in that regard.”

About 185 attorneys have volunteered for the court’s diversion pilot program, Rizzo said.

Training was held Tuesday for 100 pro bono attorneys helping with the conciliation conferences, 60 lawyers are signed up for a training session scheduled for July and 25 attorneys are working as Judges Pro Tem, Rizzo said.

“I’m calling on the law firms … to come forward to donate your time,” Jones said, to represent homeowners in conciliation conferences or as Judges Pro Tem managing the conciliation conferences.

Nutter said it appears that the Philadelphia bar is really getting involved in the court’s program.

The court’s program will be a legally appropriate process to either keep people in their home or help them gracefully exit, Rizzo said.

The conciliation conference process was developed by the 4-year-old Mortgage Foreclosure Steering Committee, which functions under Rizzo’s authority and represents lender, homeowner, nonprofit advocate and municipal viewpoints on foreclosures.

The first conciliation conferences are scheduled for next week. There are 667 cases that are eligible for conciliation conferences, and about 50 percent of homeowners are expected to show up, Rizzo said.

Tasco said Philadelphia efforts are a model for other cities to follow.

Jones said the court has been contacted by representatives from New York and Dallas about Philadelphia’s efforts, and that he will be speaking about the program before the July conference of the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers.

All the leaders asked city residents worried about their mortgages to get free housing counseling by calling the city’s new 215-334-HOME hotline staffed with attorneys from Community Legal Services.

“If you fear you might possibly lose your most valuable asset, there is hope for you,” Nutter said. “Do not suffer in silence.”

— Amaris Elliott-Engel, staff reporter


Girard-diCarlo to Get Ambassador Appointment

May 22, 2008

The White House announced on its personnel page that the president intends to nominate Blank Rome Chairman David. F. Girard-diCarlo as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Austria.

Girard-diCarlo has been a major donor and fundraiser for President George W. Bush and had spent several years living in Washington, D.C.

After spending more than 20 years serving as either managing partner or chairman of Blank Rome, Girard-diCarlo said last year that he would resign as chairman effective Jan. 1, 2009.

Once his nomination is in place, it would have to go through the senate confirmation process.

The firm couldn’t offer much comment on the nomination at this point, but managing partner and Chief Executive Officer Carl M. Buchholz said in a statement “David has been an important leader for our firm, and we are thrilled that he has received this nomination from the president.”

— Gina Passarella, Staff Reporter



Change in Rules Clarifies Non-Judicial Members’ Role in Court of Judicial Discipline

May 20, 2008

A change made to the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct earlier this year clarified the clause prohibiting judicial candidates from making statements that “commit or appear to commit” candidates regarding cases. Similarly, the rule governing the political activity of non-judicial members of the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline also was changed earlier this year in order to clarify the rule.

The rule governing the political activity of non-judicial members of the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline was changed earlier this year in order to clarify and tighten the rule. According to Henry B. FitzPatrick Jr., counsel for the Court of Judicial Discipline, the language of Section C of Rule 7 of the “Rules Governing the Conduct of the Members of the Court of Judicial Discipline” was clarified in order to strengthen the rule governing against members of the court in charge of judicial discipline from aiding the election of judicial candidates.

“We want to be stronger about judicial candidates staying out of helping anybody becoming a judge,” FitzPatrick said. “Obviously this court has jurisdiction over judges … The hope is that this rule change will make it easier to understand.”

Similarly, a widely-publicized change made to the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct clarified the clause prohibiting judicial candidates from making statements that “commit or appear to commit” candidates regarding cases.

The rule originally said, “Non-judicial members of the court shall not hold office in any political party or political organization during the member’s term of service, and should refrain from political activity inappropriate to the member’s judicial office.”

The “should refrain from political activity inappropriate to the member’s judicial office” clause was removed.

The rule also originally said, “Non-judicial members should not act as leaders in any political organization or make speeches for or endorse a candidate for judicial office or judicial appointment.”

This part of the rule has been changed to read: “Non-judicial members should not act in any capacity in any political organization of a candidate for judicial office or judicial appointment.”

The rule also originally said that “non-judicial members should not publicly solicit or contribute funds for a candidate for judicial office or judicial appointment and nor serve as officers, members or volunteers in the campaign of a candidate for judicial office.

The rule has been changed to read: “Non-judicial members should not publicly endorse a candidate for judicial office or judicial appointment and should not solicit or contribute funds for a candidate for judicial office.”

The court’s eight members include two nonjudge, lawyer members and two lay people.

Just as the “commit or appear to commit” clause in the Code of Judicial Conduct was excised because of the critique of ambiguity, the prior language in the Court of Judicial Conduct rules barring court members from “inappropriate” political activity was taken out because people will have differing interpretations of what’s inappropriate, FitzPatrick said.

“I bet what you think is inappropriate is different than what I think,” FitzPatrick said.

FitzPatrick, who has been counsel to the court since 1997, said the rule was drafted shortly after the court started in 1994. The rule was changed in February, he said.

— Amaris Elliott-Engel, Staff Reporter


Pratt Calls for Senate Action to Fill Court Vacancies

May 1, 2008

Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Mike Pratt has joined Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille’s request for the Pennsylvania Senate to act on Gov. Edward G. Rendell’s nominees to fill four appellate court vacancies.

Earlier this month, Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph B. Scarnati III and Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi rejected Rendell’s proposed interim appointees for one slot on the Supreme Court, one slot on the Commonwealth Court and two slots on the Superior Court because the candidates don’t reflect the state’s racial, geographical and gender diversity. The Republican leaders also rejected the nominees because they said Rendell did not heed their suggestions for those interim openings and the Senate’s advise and consent role in nominees.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the Republican leaders of the Senate, Pratt said: “The ability of Pennsylvania’s citizens to receive fair and effective justice in our Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme Courts is contingent upon filling these crucial posts. We ask that you end, with all expediency, this stalemate by voting to confirm the four respected jurists and attorneys who have been deemed qualified for interim court appointments by Governor Rendell.”

Pratt said in an interview that while diversity on the appellate bench is a goal of the 13,000 member bar association, that “this is a time we just need to move on and get these nominees their day in front of the judiciary committee and get a vote.”

Pratt said he has no questions about the competency or capabilities of the nominees, including former Commonwealth Court Judge and current Commonwealth Court Senior Judge James Gardner Colins for the Supreme Court opening created by former Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy’s resignation, former interim Justice and Superior Court Senior Judge James J. Fitzgerald III and past interim Superior Court Judge Robert C. Daniels for the Superior Court and Duquesne University law professor Kenneth E. Gormley for the vacant Commonwealth Court slot.

Castille has said in recent days that seeking diversity in interim appellate appointees is not the most important issue because leaving the openings unfilled means litigants and their lawyers face delays in the administration of justice and other jurists see an increase of their workloads.

The interim nominees will automatically become instituted in early June if the Senate fails to act by then.

-– Amaris Elliott-Engel, Staff Reporter