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Pennsylvania's newest Chief justice to take on modernization of state courts

Sunday, October 05, 2003

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Ralph J. Cappy played softball in the 1970s with fellow lawyers on a team called The Defendants, the big Brookline native was the power hitter, always knocking the ball farther than anyone else.

Ralph J. Cappy, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, reviews paperwork inhis office in One Oxford Centre, Downtown. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

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Cappy's initiatives for state Supreme Court

The 60-year-old leader of the state's judicial branch will need all of his heavy-hitting ability to improve the fairness, efficiency and security of Pennsylvania's justice system while guiding the nation's oldest court, which was established in 1722.

Cappy, who became chief justice of Pennsylvania's Supreme Court in January, discussed the challenges he faces and the 13 initiatives he's planning to tackle in a recent interview in his One Oxford Centre office. The broad areas he's addressing are elimination of race and gender bias; consolidation of court functions into a new judicial center in Harrisburg; completion of computerization in the courts; and improvements in security.

A diplomatic pragmatist, Cappy has served on the state's highest court since 1990 and worked during that time to reform and restructure Philadelphia County's courts. He headed the Allegheny County public defender's office from 1975 to 1978.

After spending the first several months of his tenure climbing a learning curve, Cappy said, he's ready to move on several fronts. He emphasized that the agenda was established by a consensus of the court's justices and that he appreciates their willingness to complete the tasks.

He plans to establish a certification program that will better prepare defense lawyers to represent defendants facing the death penalty. A similar certification program would be established for judges.

The creation of such programs is partly spurred by a report released in March by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias.

The committee found that although the state's minority population is 11 percent, 68 percent of the inmates on death row are minorities. As of March 2002, there were 78 whites, 150 blacks, 15 Latinos and two Asians on the state's death row.

When death penalty defendants appeal, they often say their lawyers were ineffective or attack their conviction in the federal courts.

So, Cappy has met with Judge D. Brooks Smith of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, partly because Pennsylvania makes up a large part of the 3rd Circuit. Cappy would like to train lawyers to handle death penalty cases in both state and federal courts.

Smith, who tried death penalty cases as a prosecutor and reviewed them when he sat on Pittsburgh's federal bench, said it was difficult to persuade U.S. senators and representatives to allocate funds so accused murderers receive a better defense. He praised Cappy for taking on a tough, unpopular issue.

"Our primary obligation is to see that justice is done," Smith said. "Beyond that, the system is aided considerably by cases that conclude with records that are comprehensible and that are complete. And that is greatly aided by having very effective counsel."

Another of the chief justice's initiatives is aimed at ameliorating gender bias in courts. The committee on racial and gender bias found that while women and minorities now sit on the bench, the majority of judges are still white and male.

"As of 2002, women comprise 21 percent of the state judiciary and minorities only 8 percent," the committee wrote.

Consolidating the state courts' functions could happen if Gov. Ed Rendell releases the funds that would pay for the design and construction of a $123 million judicial center in Harrisburg. The money was set aside in the 2001-2002 budget.

The state judicial center would have about 400,000 square feet and house about 400 employees. Vitteta, a Philadelphia-based architectural firm, was chosen for the project in January by the state Department of General Services. The state judicial center would consolidate numerous court offices spread out over the state, allowing for the termination of office leases.

The building would house 200 employees from the administrative office of Pennsylvania Courts, who work at two different buildings in suburban Harrisburg. The new building also would house the Commonwealth Court; the Court of Judicial Discipline; the Judicial Conduct Board; prothonotarys for all three state appellate courts; the minor judiciary education board, now based in Chambersburg; and the dozen boards and rules committees that serve as advisers to the state Supreme Court. The chief justice and members of the Supreme Court also would have offices in the building.

Another goal is to complete the computerization of the state's court system, particularly in Philadelphia.

Improving court security for judges, lawyers and the public is on the agenda, too. Computer personnel also are designing a backup system to protect information on the courts' computer system in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

None of the changes will happen, Cappy said, without help.

"You don't get anywhere on my court without the full support of my colleagues," he said, adding that each of the justices had agreed to serve on a committee to further his goals.

That support will not always be easy to come by, said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a statewide nonpartisan organization that advocates for court reform.

Cappy, Marks observed, was once part of the court's Democratic majority but finds himself in the court's political minority because he and Justice Russell Nigro are the sole Democrats. The other five justices are Republicans.

"The biggest challenge is for him to use his formidable personal and political skills to build consensus on a sometimes divided court. And that is important both in deciding cases [and] in the area of administering the entire judicial system. Finding this common ground among justices and among the other two branches of government is a very important role for a chief justice," Marks said.

Cappy believes that with time, a streamlined statewide court system can be built.

"Our citizens should expect to get the same quality of justice in any court whether it's Tioga County or Philadelphia County," he said.

Cappy's term runs through 2009, but he could serve until mandatory retirement at age 70 were he to run and win a retention election in 2009.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at or 412-263-1648.

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