Backlog Deposed Judge Taken Off Cases To Catch Up On Writing Opinions

Posted: March 16, 1990

A Philadelphia Common Pleas judge had to be removed from hearing cases for 5 1/2 months because he had fallen so far behind in writing legal opinions, officials in the troubled court confirmed yesterday.

Judge Robert Latrone, assigned to the homicide trial program, was removed Sept. 29 by Judge Edward Blake, administrative judge of the Trial Division, so he could catch up in writing opinions in murder cases he'd handled that were on appeal.

Common Pleas Court President Judge Edward Bradley yesterday confirmed Latrone had been removed. Asked how Latrone's backlog problem had become so severe, Bradley said, "I didn't realize he was so far behind."

Bradley said Latrone has finally eliminated his backlog and will resume handling murder cases Monday.

Latrone's backlog - and Bradley's lack of knowledge about it as it built up - comes at a time when other Common Pleas judges are openly questioning the court's administration and calling for a system that would hold judges more accountable for their performance.

Latrone defended his work yesterday.

"I have to apologize to no one," he said in an interview. "The citizens of this city are getting their money's worth."

Latrone makes $80,500 a year.

He declined to say how far behind he'd fallen or when he'd finally caught up. And he blamed the backlog on someone else: his law clerks.

"You can't get good help," Latrone said, referring to law clerks who are generally recommended for their jobs by other judges and leaders of the city Democratic and Republican parties. "You get a law-school kid, they don't know any better, you read it (the clerks' draft of opinions), you got to redo it."

On Tuesday, a series of Daily News stories detailed myriad problems in Common Pleas Court, including innumerable case delays and a swelling backlog that has reached 12,000 criminal cases.

In the court's homicide trial program, where Latrone works, a growing backlog of untried murder cases has reached 410, judges say.

Some judges in the homicide program suggested yesterday that Latrone's absence from the bench had little effect on the backlog, noting that Latrone is a methodical, deliberate judge who handles far fewer cases than other judges in the program.

"He'd hardly help reduce the backlog," Common Pleas Judge Lisa Richette, who handles murder cases, said. "He takes three months to try a case."

But other judges, and the chief of the homicide unit in the district attorney's office, said that any judge would help in reducing the growing homicide case backlog, even a jurist who works slowly.

"Having a full complement of judges would certainly be helpful," said Barbara Christie, the DA's homicide chief. "Getting one judge back would certainly help."

Latrone defended his performance, declaring, "There's no judge in the commonwealth who's handled more homicides."

Latrone has been a Common Pleas judge for 22 years.

Still other judges said Latrone's opinion backlog illustrates the court system's pressing need for a professional court administrator who could better monitor judges' performance and implement standards of accountability that currently do not exist.

"We need an autonomous, highly paid, special-skilled administrator," said Common Pleas Judge David Savitt, who once served as court administrator before stepping down in 1983. Savitt now hears homicide cases.

"With a court administrator with authority, who could monitor the homicide program, it would run more efficiently," he said. "He could make sure that judges move cases through."

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