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Official wants city court abolished

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Sunday, Feb. 17, 2002

While a statewide review of the district justice system is under way, a state senator from Pittsburgh is continuing his effort to do away with most of the Pittsburgh Magistrates Court, which opponents call an "aberration" in the state.

Richard King, president of the Allegheny County District Justice Association and a justice in the City of Pittsburgh's 29th and 32nd wards, said he is not expecting any change in the suburban districts. The question, he said, is what to do with the Pittsburgh Magistrates Court, which the association supports eliminating.

The Pittsburgh Magistrates Court includes housing, traffic and city court. While district justices are elected within their judicial district and have countywide jurisdiction, magistrates are attorneys appointed by the mayor and their venue is only within city limits.

According to caseload statistics obtained by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, district justices within the city have the smallest caseloads among justices in the county. The least busy justice within the city, James Hanley Jr., had 1,429 cases from 1998 through 2000, while the busiest justice's office in the county, Robert Barner in North Versailles, saw more than 22,000 in the same time.

Justice James Russo, whose office in Leetsdale is among the busiest in the county, said that because of their low numbers, the district justices within the city should be eliminated or combined.

"I don't think the city judges are amply compensated case-wise," he said. "There are judges in the city that handle 600 cases. I don't think that's ample for a judge."

King said the 17 elected district justices in the city have the lowest caseload levels in the county because the city police primarily use the city court system. He said the city court, not the elected district justices, should go.

"We are the system in the state. They are the aberration," King said. "The whole state is one way, and the City of Pittsburgh is another way."

"The executive branch shouldn't be running the court," King said.

The District Justice Association supports a bill first proposed by state Sen. Jack Wagner, a Beechview Democrat, two years ago that would eliminate most of the city court system.

Wagner said the city court is a duplication of services and an unneeded drain on taxpayer dollars that could be spent for other purposes.

"What we are missing in the city is the individualized professional district justice attention to neighborhood issues," Wagner said.

"There is no reason why those (justices) inside the city cannot be handling the same caseload (as the suburbs). They want more work. It's really a shame the system is different in Pittsburgh than it is in every other area of the state."

Craig Kwiecinski, spokesman for Mayor Tom Murphy, said the city system is effective and efficient. He said the city court system saves the city between $3 million and $5 million in police overtime costs that would have to be spent if police had to travel to the various district justice offices.

"They adjudicate many hundreds of thousands of cases a year. The city taxpayers receive significant benefit from having the court system," Kwiecinski said. "It helps ensure officers are on the street doing their job, not spending their day in court."

Noting Murphy's stated intention to focus on neighborhoods, Wagner said he hopes to convince the mayor to support his legislation.

"I know without the mayor's support it would be very difficult to get passage of the legislation in Harrisburg," Wagner said. "I feel strongly that the local elected district justice could handle the majority of these cases much better than city court. I would hope (Murphy) would be more open-minded to this issue."

Allegheny County President Judge Robert A. Kelly, who will oversee the realignment of the county's district justice territories, said the debate over the city court system is outside his jurisdiction but is a factor to be considered in the process.

"You have to look at it. Is it going to stay or isn't it going to stay• If it isn't going to stay, how many city justices do you need, and vice versa, " he said.

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