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Phila.'s new president judge's reward: budget crisis

For Pamela Pryor Dembe, it was almost a be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment. Last month, she won the job for which she politicked at least four years: president judge of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

Pamela Pryor Dembe is the newly elected president judge of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.
Pamela Pryor Dembe is the newly elected president judge of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

For Pamela Pryor Dembe, it was almost a be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment.

Last month, she won the job for which she politicked at least four years: president judge of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

Within a week, Dembe was meeting with Mayor Nutter and asked to cut almost $6 million in court costs to deal with the city's financial crisis.

There are happier ways to start a new job, but Dembe said the budget crisis was not a surprise.

"Everybody clearly sees the need for it," said Dembe, referring to the requested cuts to the court system's $114.5 million budget. "The mayor is trying to get on top of this at the beginning and not let the problem fester."

Dembe said the mayor asked her to make the 5 percent cut by the June 30 end of the city budget year.

Those who know Dembe say they don't think she has had second thoughts.

"I think, foremost, she's up to the challenge," said her predecessor, C. Darnell Jones II, who left the job of president judge a year before his five-term expired when he was appointed to the federal bench. "She's a solid judge who is well-respected by her peers. She knows her stuff."

Cutting the court budget is certain to cause some pain, Dembe said, because personnel costs make up 80 percent of it.

David C. Lawrence, court administrator for the First Judicial District - the Philadelphia courts' formal name - said he hoped to avoid layoffs.

The court system has a workforce of 1,965 support personnel, of which 82 positions are vacant and will remain so, Lawrence said. Through a hiring freeze, retirements and reducing spending for court transcripts, travel expenses and office supplies, Lawrence said, the $5.7 million Nutter wants may be doable.

The salaries of the First Judicial District's 92 active judges and those of Lawrence and his deputy are funded by the state. The salaries and expenses of the support staff for the Criminal Justice Center, the civil courts in City Hall, Traffic Court, Family Court, and Orphans Court are borne by city taxpayers.

Dembe, 61, remains optimistic - and with reason. She was, after all, elected to the Common Pleas Court in 1989, when the court's reputation was arguably at its lowest.

A few years earlier, the FBI had been eavesdropping on the Roofers Union and heard boss Steve Traitz counting out cash - $300 to $500 each - for city judges. Three judges were convicted criminally, and 14 others were removed, resigned or suspended.

And then, in 1991, the state Supreme Court stepped in, appointing a broadly empowered court administrator to run the city courts, reduce criminal and civil case backlogs, and reform the court's reputation as a patronage mill.

In 1996, the Supreme Court eliminated the "court czar," and made the court administrator responsible for budget and finances. Since then, the First Judicial District has been governed by an eight-member board that includes the president and administrative judges of the Philadelphia courts and the state court administrator.

From that turmoil, Dembe said, the current Philadelphia bench has risen.

Dembe said the current complement of 92 judges "has been about accomplishment and moving forward. It's a terrific bench."

Among the court's recent accomplishments, Dembe said, is the Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program, in which the court arranges conciliation conferences between residential homeowners and lenders to avoid foreclosure and negotiate new mortgage terms. Since it began in May, more than 500 properties have been pulled from the sheriff's-sale list.

Dembe, who was born in Cleveland, said she came of age in an era when the only career paths for women outside the home were teaching, social work or nursing.

Dembe said she was sure of one thing: "I always wanted to be able to take care of myself and my children."

Dembe enrolled at Temple University, earned a bachelor's degree in 1972, and began working in a program for psychotic children.

She wanted more and considered medical school - her father was a dentist - but said the time commitment was too much for a working mother of two young children.

Instead, Dembe enrolled at Temple's law school, where the flexible schedule of day and night courses made it possible for her to earn a law degree in 1977.

After a decade in private practice, she decided to run for Common Pleas Court, a move helped by the fact that she was also working as an attorney for the Democratic City Committee.

In 2005, she ran for president judge, coming in second to Jones in a field of four. She ran again this year after several years as administrative judge for the criminal courts.

"For me, politics is an addiction," she said. "I'm like a greyhound that has smelled the rabbit."

Common Pleas Court judges in Pennsylvania earn $157,441 a year. Dembe, as president judge in Philadelphia, earns $160,608.

Jones said the job is demanding because the president judge serves many constituencies: the city's judges and legal community, the state Supreme Court justices, and, most important, the public and the "rule of law."

It's a job, Jones added, where perception of your power often does not match reality: "It's where the buck stops - really, and not really."

One example of the limitations Dembe faces is that she has little control over agencies that have a lot to say about how the courts operate.

Dembe noted that "in most jurisdictions, they plead out 96 to 98 percent of the criminal cases. We have a lot more trials."

Dembe says about 25 percent of city criminal cases go to trial before a judge or jury. But the decision about who pleads guilty is principally up to the District Attorney's Office, and plea bargains have been a rarity during the 16 years since Lynne M. Abraham was first elected Philadelphia's top prosecutor.

"Lynne Abraham ferociously defends her constituency, and she has a huge amount of public support," Dembe said. "This is something we may not like, but it's something we have worked with for quite a number of years. . . . With the category and number of cases we get, we just do the best we can."

Dembe said she sees her role as president judge to "create an atmosphere where my judges can make decisions based on what's right and not make mistakes based on fear."

"We still have our mission to deliver justice," she added.