Too few justices on Pennsylvania's top court appear willing to grapple with improving the way Philadelphia pays the court-appointed lawyers who guard against the ultimate injustice: the wrongful condemnation of a defendant to death row because he couldn't afford a decent lawyer.

The state Supreme Court's ruling last week ended litigation aimed at crafting a reimbursement system to assure that even the poorest defendants get a fair trial. But the 4-3 split offered some hope that one day the progressive minority view will prevail.

The dissenters, Justices Thomas G. Saylor, Debra McCloskey Todd, and Seamus P. McCaffery, rightly signaled their alarm over "evidence that Pennsylvania's capital punishment regime is in disrepair."

An attempt to hike flat-rate legal fees fell short two years ago. What's needed to assure justice are reasonable hourly rates that offer indigent defendants the legal resources to mount their defense in death-penalty cases. A Harrisburg proposal to create a statewide indigent-defense legal center - due for a state Senate hearing soon - would be a major reform.

Meantime, city and court officials should push for more funding for Philadelphia's highly regarded Defender Association, so it can bring its expertise to handling more of the homicide cases now being assigned to underpaid court-appointed counsel.