Old-time justices of the peace often practiced justice by a wink and a nod. Outcomes often were rooted in local custom, backgrounds of the parties, relationships and politics among plaintiffs and defendants, police and the accused and a variety of factors only loosely connected with the law.
Pennsylvania has made major strides in professionalizing the “minor judiciary” over the last 25 years, members of which are now known as magisterial district judges. More of them have formal legal training. Most counties have central courts to remove preliminary criminal matters from what were, in effect, the closed doors of the neighborhood office. Pay has been increased to help produce more qualified candidates. There is a statewide disciplinary system.
Yet a recent analysis of that disciplinary system shows that professionalizing the minor judiciary remains a work in progress.
The Legal Intelligencer, which covers the courts and the law profession, found that two-thirds of all cases handled by the Judicial Conduct Board since its creation in 1993 involve members of the minor judiciary, 57 of 85 cases.
Offenses range from most of the Philadelphia Traffic Court being charged with fraud charges for ticket fixing in 2013, resulting in the court itself being disbanded, to a magisterial district judge punching a police officer, presiding while drunk, sexually harassing clerical staff and fixing cases in exchange for bribes.
Of Pennsylvania’s 981 judges across 67 counties, 472 are members of the minor judiciary. State law does not require magisterial district judges to have formal legal training, or any education beyond a basic four-week course. That is meant to ensure that magisterial district justices remain close to their communities, since most people who interact with the court system do so at that level.
But the high percentage of disciplinary cases involving the minor judiciary indicates a systemic problem that the Supreme Court, which administers the entire system, should address.
Lawyers generally contend that only lawyers should be allowed to be magisterial district judges; advocates of the current system counter that most lawyers work only part-time at the judicial positions. And in any case, lawyers are far from immune from disciplinary issues.
The state Supreme Court first should intensify training for new magisterial district judges, and emphasize…