Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.
Greg Johnson has a pretty good job — and even better benefits.
The Dauphin County magisterial district judge and his colleagues across the state earn $93,338 a year, with the possibility of a pension and lifetime health care, funded largely by taxpayers.
So, it might come as a surprise that 2019 court data revealed he sometimes had proceedings just two days a week. That also allowed him to tend to his family business — a nursery and landscaping company north of Harrisburg.
In Delaware County, Judge Robert Radano had a nice setup, too.
Setting aside weekends, holidays, and a week of training, Radano had the equivalent of five months without court appearances. He also worked a second job, as a practicing attorney.
And in Allegheny County, Judge Anthony Saveikis had 96 days without any proceedings. He listed three other jobs on his financial disclosure form: lawyer, energy company owner, and real estate partner.
Across Pennsylvania, 512 elected district judges are the gatekeepers of the court system and the most likely to interact with residents. They preside over traffic cases, set bail amounts in criminal cases, and rule on civil disputes, such as home evictions.
But a yearlong investigation and data analysis by PennLive and Spotlight PA found huge variations in how many days each had court proceedings.
The news organizations analyzed the schedules of 466 district judges for 2019, after eliminating judges in Luzerne County and Pittsburgh for whom reliable data could not be obtained, as well as 23 offices that were vacant some portion of the year.
Ten percent of district judges had at least 60 days without court appearances, above and beyond holidays, weekends, and training days.
The average full-time American worker had 19 days of paid vacation and sick time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Even when district judges had proceedings, they weren’t always logging eight hours in the courtroom. Some, particularly in rural areas, only heard a handful of matters, while others stacked their schedules in the morning, and their courtrooms sometimes went dark after 1 p.m.
PennLive and Spotlight PA also applied the state’s workload methodology, which weighs the varying complexities of proceedings. The analysis found workloads were wildly unequal, even though each judge receives equal pay and, after serving at least 10 years, benefits for life.
Some district judges pushed back and said their workloads consist of more than proceedings. Others shot down that notion, saying they have little work outside the courtroom.
Nearly 40 district judges, attorneys, county clerks, academics, and other sources were interviewed for this story, but many declined to speak on the record.
They said problems with judicial scheduling and workloads at the magisterial district level have been an open secret for years, but that it was taboo to criticize judges or file complaints, citing fear of retaliation.
“It’s not like poking the bear with a stick,” an official said. “It’s like punching the bear in the nose.”
The result, court observers said, was a bloated, $237 million annual bureaucracy that wasted taxpayer money and spurred a domino effect of inefficiencies across the judicial system.
One district judge said he remembered the advice a colleague gave him shortly after being sworn in: “Remember, this is a part-time job. Don’t ruin it for the rest of us.”
Like other elected offices, state law doesn’t spell out any requirement that district judges, who serve six-year terms, must work a certain number of hours. They are simply directed to devote the time needed “for the prompt and proper disposition of the business of their office.”
Many had packed schedules in 2019 and heard far more matters than their colleagues.
But they’re also allowed to have other employment, as long as they make their judicial duties a priority. That provides them with wide latitude, court observers said, when setting schedules and putting in whatever time they decide the job requires.
Daniel Baranoski, a district judge in Bucks County and president of the Special Court Judges Association of Pennsylvania, reviewed the PennLive/Spotlight PA analysis.
In a statement, Baranoski said if judges weren’t hearing proceedings, that didn’t mean they were not working. They could be doing other activities, he said, such as participating in community events, researching cases, working on task forces, or filling out paperwork.
Baranoski said most district judges are hard workers, and the state’s system is efficient for taxpayers.
“Judges do not punch a time clock,” he said. “Hearings run long, and we work late many days.”
Three district judges, however, told PennLive and Spotlight PA the analysis was fair and their activities outside the courtroom rarely require an extensive amount of time. One veteran judge said, in an average year, he spends about 15% of his time on paperwork and other duties outside the courtroom.
District judges aren’t required to be lawyers or write legal opinions. But if they don’t have a law degree, Baranoski said, they must take a four-week training course, pass a four-hour exam, and attend annual legal classes.
Baranoski also said a recent survey, by his organization, found about 35% of district judges were lawyers.
Several district judges who had high numbers of days without court appearances — including Delaware County’s Radano — declined interview requests.
A Delaware County defense attorney said she didn’t know about the workloads of judges outside of court, but she was surprised Radano’s name topped the list for fewest days with proceedings.
She said he is a high-quality, “hands-on” judge who takes phone conference calls and reviews documents before hearings, instead of just showing up cold.
Johnson, the Dauphin County judge, didn’t dispute he had spent relatively few days in court and a lighter caseload than many of his peers. He said he spent about 30 to 32 hours a week in his office, which is housed in the same building as his courtroom.
But he also said police officers visited him, on occasion, at his nursery to get documents signed. Johnson declined to say how much time he spent at the nursery.
“Looking strictly at caseload isn’t the only way to look at this,” he said. “I look at those statistics and say to myself I’ve been very successful.
“I don’t have to work every single day because the people in my district … are very well behaved, and then when they appear before me, I make it clear, we don’t allow those types of misbehaviors in this area.”
John Cherry, Dauphin County’s president judge, and David Judy, president of the Dauphin County Magisterial District Judge Association, said they’ve always considered being a district judge a full-time job.
Judy said he is committed to being in his offices from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday.
“It is my responsibility, as an elected public official,” he said. “I realize that some of my colleagues may disagree with this philosophy. I respect that. But this has been my practice since I took the bench in January 1988.”
In 2001, an intergovernmental task force studying Pennsylvania’s district judge system found some of them were “only performing their judicial duties on a ‘part-time’ basis while they pursue other employment during the week.”
The task force recommended barring district judges from outside employment, similar to higher court judges, so they could concentrate full time on judicial duties. The committee also noted that, under that scenario, pay raises would be appropriate. The recommendations did not result in either change.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, who was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the most recent legislative session, said she plans to widen the scope of a planned examination of the court system, using data and information from the PennLive/Spotlight PA analysis.
“I do think it’s appropriate to do these deep dives,” she said. “Just because something’s been done a certain way so long, doesn’t mean it’s the right way.”
Presented with the findings of the investigation, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor applauded the work of district judges and noted president judges can petition to eliminate a court at any time.
“The men and women who serve as magisterial district judges are the front line of Pennsylvania’s judiciary,” Saylor wrote. “They administer justice, often in highly charged circumstances, and are due the appreciation of the public for their service.”
Too many judges
Lawyers and court officials pointed to multiple reasons for inefficiencies in the system.
They said there are too many district judges, and not all of them have enough work to fill a week. They also said low caseloads are common in rural areas. Johnson, whose district covers a rural portion of Dauphin County, had less than half the average number of proceedings of all the other judges in the county.
Kim Berkeley Clark, Allegheny County’s president judge, agreed some of her district judges had low caseloads. But eliminating positions and merging districts, she said, would create problems.
“Allegheny County is a large county,” she wrote. “It could be a great hardship to require someone in one part of the county to travel to a location that may not be easily accessible to them.”
The state Supreme Court looks at more than just workload when determining the number and boundaries of judicial districts, Johnson said, because they want offices to be in close proximity to all residents.
Others said Clark’s and Johnson’s concerns might be true in certain areas, but they are also long-standing excuses to justify offices that should be eliminated.
Wider use of video teleconferencing and centralized courts, court observers said, would make it easier to consolidate workloads between rural and urban areas.
And, while a reduction in court offices might increase travel times for some residents, they said, a balance needs to be struck between cost and public access.
Between the salary of each judge, staff, security, and building upkeep, each district office costs taxpayers an average of $460,000 annually. The state pays the judges’ salaries and benefits, while the counties pay for office operations.
The PennLive/Spotlight PA investigation found it wasn’t just rural judges who had high numbers of days without proceedings.
In 2019, five of the 10 judges with the highest number of days without court appearances were based in Delaware County, a bedroom community of Philadelphia, with about 500,000 residents and 29 district judges.
The news organizations reached out to those five, and a sixth, Vincent Gallagher, who had relatively few days with proceedings in part because of time off to deal with a health issue, he said. Gallagher, who also works as a website design consultant, was the only one who spoke on the record.
He said he has hearings scheduled Mondays and Tuesdays that don’t normally take eight hours, and nothing regularly scheduled Wednesday through Friday. He also said he works “on-call” every nine weeks, covering evenings and weekends.
Gallagher said he can only hear the cases that come before him.
“Is it a 40-hour work week?” he said. “It may not be. But what job do you have to work every night and weekend during rotations? Nothing about this is the normal, every-day job.”
Delaware County employs 10 more district judges than Lancaster County, which has a similar population, and 11 more than Bucks County, which has about 62,000 more residents.
Kevin Kelly, Delaware County’s president judge, did not return multiple messages.
“Everyone knows it’s hard being a [district] judge,” said Andrew Edelberg, a Delaware County defense attorney. “But it’s not a 9-to-5, five-day-a-week job. It’s not a full-time job. Could it be with fewer judges? It’s possible. But that’s not the way it has happened.”
How do some district judges manage workloads when they have so many days without proceedings?
Some use a strategy called “case stacking.”
It’s a simple technique: Instead of scheduling one hearing every 30 minutes, judges schedule up to 10 every 15 minutes.
A judge can’t handle different cases at the same time. But by scheduling them simultaneously, police, attorneys, and their clients all show up at the same time. A judge can go immediately from hearing to hearing with no downtime. If a police officer or defendant doesn’t show, the judge can jump straight to the next case.
From a district judge’s perspective, it’s a time saver: You can pack a day’s worth of cases into a morning.
But for others, it means long, crowded waits, said Gary Asteak, past president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“There is nothing more aggravating than to show up in court to find 25 cases scheduled at the same time,” said Asteak, who works as a defense attorney in Northampton County. “Then, if you want to exercise your right to a hearing, you have to wait until the end.”
A Dauphin County attorney said: “If you have been to central court, you will see half-a-dozen attorneys waiting, half-a-dozen police waiting. It’s a phenomenal waste of resources.”
Case stacking appeared to be in full swing in May 2019 in Dauphin County.
Judge David O’Leary had 51 scheduled cases between 9 and 11 a.m. — or, on average, a case less than every three minutes.
For two hours, the court’s waiting room was packed with attorneys, their clients, witnesses, and relatives. Guards said the situation was common, and sometimes led to arguments and fights.
Several Harrisburg police officers, who declined to be identified, said it wasn’t unusual for officers to not show up because they didn’t want to wait hours to testify. When officers didn’t show, the cases typically were rescheduled, requiring everyone to report back another day.
PennLive and Spotlight PA reached out to three Dauphin County judges, all based in Harrisburg, who appeared to stack their cases. Only one responded.
O’Leary defended case stacking as efficient and necessary because so many cases are disposed of without hearings but admitted “some of that efficiency was done at the expense of people sitting around.”
That has changed amid COVID-19 rules that require social distancing and remote video hearings for prisoners, he said.
The changes require more discussion between prosecutors and defense attorneys before hearings and more administrative work, O’Leary said, and it has reduced the amount of time people are sitting around.
Cherry, who became Dauphin County’s president judge in January, expressed concern about the PennLive/Spotlight PA findings. Cherry was disturbed by one case, where a defendant wanted his day in court.
The man appeared three times, waiting two hours on each occasion, before the charges were dismissed, and after the arresting officer failed to show.
“For that person who had to come three times, that’s frankly inexcusable,” Cherry said. “There will be those angry over that comment made, but it is inexcusable for three times. And that comes down to scheduling.”
Cherry said he planned to sit down with all of the county’s district judges.
“We’re going to look into these matters and try to resolve what we can,” he said.
Outside Dauphin County, one judge said he saw nothing wrong with case stacking.
Saveikis, the judge from western Allegheny County, said it’s easier for police and prosecutors if he schedules the bulk of his cases on Mondays and Tuesdays.
His district is on the county border, about 30 minutes west of Pittsburgh, and, he said, stacking cases minimizes the need for multiple trips to his remote courtroom.
For the rest of the week, Saveikis said, he is still available if police need him to sign warrants, or if residents need him to sign complaints.
If he wanted, Saveikis said, he could pad out his schedule. “Some people are probably better at making their schedule look busier,” he said. “But that’s never been my goal.”
With too little work, and too little oversight, district judges may focus their attention on outside work, said Maybell Romero, an associate law professor at Northern Illinois University.
Of the 10 judges with the highest number of days with no proceedings in 2019, at least six worked as attorneys, several with their own firms, the PennLive/Spotlight PA analysis found.
For a judge who has a business to run, Romero said, a technique like case stacking would be difficult to resist.
“It’s disincentivizing public work and incentivizing private work,” she said.
In theory, Pennsylvania has a solution to ensure district judge workloads are balanced and positions are treated as full-time commitments.
Every 10 years, the state Supreme Court evaluates the boundaries of each district. Each county is required to study the workloads of their district judges and recommend whether positions should be kept, eliminated, or boundaries redrawn. The next round is scheduled for 2021.
But some court observers said substantial improvements were unlikely without fresh attention.
During the last process in 2011, the Supreme Court set a goal of reducing district courts by 10%, or 55 offices, primarily through attrition, to save money. The process fell short but still resulted in 34 fewer districts, saving more than $5 million a year, according to a court administration newsletter.
At that time, the courts developed a formula to gauge the amount of work each judge performed. The formula took into consideration that judges heard different mixes of cases: some simple, others more complex. Handling a preliminary hearing for a criminal case, for example, is more time consuming than signing off on a traffic ticket.
The purpose of the formula was to ensure districts could be drawn in an equitable manner.
PennLive and Spotlight PA applied the court’s methodology to the 2019 caseloads of 466 district judges. Sixty-five percent had workloads that were significantly imbalanced, based on the court’s own definition.
Doris Marie Provine, a lawyer and professor at Arizona State University, said it was encouraging that the Supreme Court had developed a system to gauge disparities.
“Your state has got as far as having a reapportionment process,” Provine said. “But why is the system so imbalanced?”
The system largely leaves decisions about redistricting to the president judges in each county. Some of those judges, court watchers said, may have little incentive to eliminate their colleagues’ positions.
Provine said Pennsylvania has many government structures that are unique or archaic. But judges who only have proceedings a few days a week, she said, is an issue that should transcend tradition.
“What you describe sounds quite unfair to taxpayers and to defendants,” Provine said. “It seems to me more like a scandal than just plain archaic.”
PennLive reporter Jan Murphy contributed to this story.
100% ESSENTIAL:Spotlight PA relies on funding from foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. Give now and your contribution will be DOUBLED: spotlightpa.org/donate