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Pa. Supreme Court to realign justices and their districts

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

Over three years, more than 22,000 cases moved through the office of District Justice Robert Barner of North Versailles.

During the same time period, from 1998 through 2000, less than one-seventh of that volume, about 3,000 cases, went through the office of District Justice Thomas Miller of White Oak, state figures show.

Such disparity in caseload will be a factor considered as district justice boundaries are re-established and redrawn across the state this year. In southwestern Pennsylvania, Butler County officials are hoping to gain more district justices to cope with a crushing increase in population and caseload, while officials in Washington County, which lost two judges a decade ago, are hoping not to lose any more. Despite a population decline, Allegheny County officials anticipate no change.

The state Supreme Court is required to re-establish or realign magisterial districts each decade after the federal census. The census results also are used to realign the districts of county, state and federal lawmakers.

The high court recently accepted the recommendations of a task force that, in addition to recommending guidelines for realigning districts, took a broader look at improving the district justice system, said Art Heinz, spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

The 22-member task force was formed in May and presented its report to the court in November. The president judge in each county is to submit a plan to the administrative office for review by the end of April. Final plans are due by June, and the Supreme Court is expected to act on the plans by year's end, with changes taking effect in 2003, Heinz said.

What will make the process different this year is the availability of detailed caseload statistics for each of the state's 550 district justices made possible by a statewide computer network that went online in 1992.

"It's important because it shows a track record of activity in the offices and the type of activity in each office, which we didn't have previously," Heinz said. "We were one of the first in the country to have our minor courts computerized."

A major goal of the process, Heinz said, will be to even out the workload among district justices in each of the state's 60 judicial districts.

"There was a big push on for caseload equity. That was one thing the task force recommended," Heinz said. "The feeling is that it is a necessary element for sound judicial administration. It works toward avoiding inefficiency. It avoids having an underused or overused office. Judicial resources are limited, but we want to make sure we operate in the most efficient manner possible."

But a report by the task force's subcommittee on magisterial re-establishment said public access to district justice offices has to be considered, even over caseload considerations.

"The most important thing is for the people to be served. So accessibility is a very important factor," said Robert A. Kelly, Allegheny County's president judge and chairman of the subcommittee.

"You have to remember a lot of people don't have cars. They have to rely on public transportation. If you were going to put together two areas, you better make sure there's a way to get from one to another," he said. "Just to go maybe a mile and a half might require somebody to actually get a bus into town and get a bus back out and get a bus back into town and a bus back to their home, which can be quite a detriment to having access to a court. You have to think about things like that."

Kelly said it is too early to tell how much change might be in store for the 55 district justice territories in Allegheny County or if the county will gain or lose justices.

"I think right now, with the number we have, the people's work is being done in an efficient manner," Kelly said. "I think one of the things you want to look at whenever you're dealing with district justices or neighborhood justice is how long is the inventory of cases, because problems like that you can't let sit.

"If somebody is scheduling cases two months out, obviously they have too much to do," he said.

In Butler County, President Judge Thomas Doerr said expansion is assumed, and the only question is where to draw the boundaries.

Doerr said the county needs at least two or three justices added to the current five because of the county's population increase and the extreme caseload increase that growth has brought. In addition to the booming Cranberry Township area, Doerr said, another justice also is needed in the central area of the county, and yet another might be needed in the southeastern corner of the county, where a development boom also is expected. The district justice in the Slippery Rock area needs a larger office.

"Very often, so many hearings are required to be held within the hours an office is open during the week that there is only a few minutes allotted to each hearing," Doerr said. "To hear cases fairly, you can't have that much time pressure. It's not fair to the commonwealth, and it's not fair to the person who has the citation to be constantly rushed."

The night and weekend rotations also are wearing on the existing justices, who sometimes go without sleep.

"It's an unreasonable amount of hours that are required," Doerr said. "The long-term effect is not good. It produces a lot of stress."

Thomas D. Gladden, president judge in Washington County, said that 10 years ago, the county lost two justices, going from 14 to 12.

"I'm not sure that a further reduction is going to be justified, but if it is, we'll take the necessary steps," Gladden said. "I think we made our change the last time, but I've got an open mind."

Although there has been population growth in areas such as North Strabane, Peters and Cecil, Gladden said that has not automatically resulted in increased workloads for the justices.

"Maybe those people that moved into those areas don't get in trouble," he said.

Westmoreland County had also lost two justices during the last magisterial re-establishment and realignment, going from 21 to 19. The changes occurred because of a decrease in county population and low caseloads in some offices.

Westmoreland President Judge Charles Loughran, who is retiring March 31, said he will have to study the situation before determining if any more change is needed this time around.

"There are some district justices whose workload is less than others, but a lot of factors go into that," he said.

Public comment will be taken as part of the re-establishment process, but the president judges have not yet decided how they will do that. Kelly said he will also ask other users of the system, such as the district attorney, trial lawyers and police, for their opinions.

Richard King, a district justice and president of the Allegheny County District Justice Association, said what should be remembered is that the courts are there to serve the people.

"For the vast majority of citizens, their only contact with the judicial system is at our level," he said. "That's why it's so important for us to have the best foot forward."

About district justices


A district justice must be:

  • A state resident
  • At least 21 years old
  • A resident of his or her magisterial district for at least one year before election or appointment
  • Certified by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, after completing the Minor Judiciary Election Board's monthlong training course and passing an examination that follows. Attorneys admitted to the bar in Pennsylvania are exempt from this requirement. All newly elected justices must attend a one-time training course, plus 32 hours of continuing education in approved courses and programs each year.

    A justice's term of office is six years, and he or she is a state employee. The salary is $59,085 a year.

    A district justice's jurisdiction includes:

  • Hearing civil cases involving up to $8,000, including contract, tort, fines and penalties by a government agency, and landlord/tenant disputes.
  • Sitting as judge in the hearing of summary matters initiated by a law enforcement officer, including traffic or nontraffic citations.
  • Conducting arraignments, the initial court involvement in criminal arrests. Defendants are told of charges, bail is set and the defendant receives a summons for a preliminary hearing in three to 10 days.
  • Conducting preliminary hearings, in which a justice hears testimony and determines whether the prosecution has enough evidence to warrant a trial.
  • Issuing search and arrest warrants and protection-from-abuse orders.
  • Performing wedding ceremonies.

    Source: Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas

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