A yearlong investigation and data analysis by PennLive and Spotlight PA found that the workloads of district judges across Pennsylvania are “wildly unequal, even though each judge receives equal pay and, after serving at least 10 years, benefits for life.” Those news organizations found “huge variations in how many days each had court proceedings.” They 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.” Spotlight PA is a nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer; its partners include LNP Media Group.

If you’ve ever contested a speeding ticket, or been involved in a dispute with a landlord or tenant, you went before a magisterial district judge.

As PennLive and Spotlight PA described them, Pennsylvania’s 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.”

Maybe your district court office was busy the day you were there. But perhaps it wasn’t. It doesn’t really matter: Whatever their workloads, magisterial district judges are paid $93,338 a year, “with the possibility of a pension and lifetime health care, funded largely by taxpayers,” PennLive and Spotlight PA reported.

Nice work if you can get it.

And you don’t need special qualifications — you just need to be elected to a six-year term. District judges “aren’t required to be lawyers or write legal opinions,” those news organizations noted.

If district judges don’t have a law degree, they are required to take a four-week training course, pass a four-hour exam, and attend annual legal classes. Not bad for a position that will pay them so handsomely, without requiring that they work a defined minimum of hours per week.

“Ten percent of district judges had at least 60 days without court appearances, above and beyond holidays, weekends and training days,” PennLive and Spotlight PA reported. “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, heard only a handful of matters, while others stacked their schedules in the morning, and their courtrooms sometimes went dark after 1 p.m.”

When stacking cases, judges schedule several cases during the same time slot; in one example offered by PennLive and Spotlight PA, a Dauphin County judge had 51 cases scheduled in two hours — “on average, a case less than every three minutes.”

Case-stacking works out for the district judges, but it doesn’t always work out so well for the police, and attorneys and their clients, who are slotted for hearings every 10 to 15 minutes — and then may waste hours waiting in a crowded room to be called before the judge.

“There is nothing more aggravating than to show up in court to find 25 cases scheduled at the same time,” one defense attorney told Spotlight PA and PennLive. “Then, if you want to exercise your right to a hearing, you have to wait until the end.”

Some district judges’ schedules are so light that they are able to maintain other jobs.

Some said they are working on court-related business — taking part in community events, for instance, or reviewing documents — even when they’re not in court, and they work nights and weekends when necessary.

But one district judge shared with PennLive and Spotlight PA the advice he was given by another after he was sworn in: “Remember, this is a part-time job. Don’t ruin it for the rest of us.”

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor essentially defended the status quo, telling those news organizations that 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.”

But other sources told PennLive and Spotlight PA that “problems with judicial scheduling and workloads at the magisterial district level have been an open secret for years” — and it’s frowned-upon to raise the subject.

“It’s not like poking the bear with a stick,” an official said. “It’s like punching the bear in the nose.”

Why so much concern for the bear, and so little concern for the taxpayers funding the bear’s upkeep?

In 2016, we asserted in editorials that there were too many district judges in Lancaster County. In one editorial, we called the surplus “one more instance of our bloated state and municipal government.”

And we supported the aim of Judge Dennis Reinaker, who was Lancaster County’s president judge at the time, to consolidate the county’s magisterial districts — though we defended two district judge offices in Lancaster city that were consistently busy, and urged the elimination of far-less-busy offices. 

We believed in 2016, and still believe, that unnecessary magisterial district seats only add to Pennsylvania’s notoriously overinflated government. And we continue to wonder why the famed Pennsylvania Dutch frugality hasn’t spurred sensible consolidation of the magisterial district court system.

Truly, the magisterial district judge law in the commonwealth seems to have been written by a lawmaker who wanted to set up a relative for life.

As PennLive and Spotlight PA reported, the magisterial district bureaucracy costs taxpayers $237 million annually, with each district office costing taxpayers an average of $460,000 per year.

We’d ask state lawmakers — who also are paid handsomely — to exercise some oversight and evaluate this expenditure of taxpayer dollars. Then they can think about shrinking their own bureaucracy, too.

As PennLive and Spotlight PA reported, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court evaluation of the boundaries of each district is due to take place in 2021. “Each county is required to study the workloads of their district judges and recommend whether positions should be kept, eliminated, or boundaries redrawn,” those news organizations reported.

We will be paying attention.

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