Magisterial District Judges are usually the first and often the only representative of the judicial system that most of the citizens of their district have contact with. There are 517 Magisterial District Judges in PA, in districts determined by the Supreme Court of PA. They were formerly called District Justices, Magistrates, Magistrate District Justices, and Justices of the Peace, a historic term. Their pay for 2017 is $89,438 per year, in addition to health insurance benefits and membership in the PA Employees Retirement System.
What is interesting about this judicial office, called a “Minor Judicial Office” by the PA court system, is that Magisterial District Judges don’t have to be lawyers. Candidates for the minor judiciary need only be 21 years of age, have lived in that Magisterial district for 1 year, and to have successfully completed a 4-week course of study given by the Minor Judiciary Education Board, if they are not licensed lawyers. When you consider what Magisterial District Judges do, it seems surprising.
The kinds of cases that comes before the minor judiciary vary greatly. Civil cases up to $12,000, which include a majority of landlord-tenant disputes, are within their jurisdiction. On the criminal side, MDJ’s handle arraignments and hearings, the first court appearance for people charged with serious criminal offenses. Minor criminal offenses, such as traffic citations and non-traffic citations for violations of ordinances. These kinds of violations include issues such as municipal weed control, grass-cutting, snow shoveling, and building code violations.
Most MDJ’s also perform marriage ceremonies. In Pittsburgh District 35 (5-2-35, covering Pittsburgh Wards 7 and 14), one of the issues in the upcoming May 16 primary is that the sitting MDJ, Daniel Butler, does not perform marriage ceremonies.
MDJ’s handle emergency protection from abuse petitions filed by persons who believe they are in immediate danger from a spouse, partner, or relative; these expire in 24 hours or at the end of the next Common Pleas (county) court day.
In an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette several years ago, a retiring MDJ commented that the kinds of cases he heard ran the gamut, from household repairs gone bad, car repairs gone bad, people not paying a dentist’s bill, drunk driving cases, and even truancy cases, kids who have missed too much school.
According to lawyers who regularly appear before MDJ’s, judicial temperament is a crucial issue, as well as their knowledge of the law and their ability to calm the tempers of frazzled litigants. Although non-lawyer candidates for MDJ must pass a four-week course of training established by the PA Supreme Court, the difference between this and the 3-year full-time study in an accredited law school and passing the state bar exam required of PA licensed lawyers is stark. Even the 32-hour annual continuing education required of non-lawyer MDJ’s is hardly the equivalent.
The elective term of MDJ’s is 6 years. Candidates for the office of MDJ may cross-file, that is, file for nomination as both Republican and Democrat; 100 signatures of voters from that magisterial district and registered as members of the party whose petition they are signing are required on nominating petitions. If MDJ candidates do cross-file and win the primary lotto and are nominated on both ballots, they generally have a smooth ride through the general election in November.
So before you skip your chance to vote at the primaries on May 16, think about the person(s) running for magistrate in your district. There is a good chance you or your friends and family may find yourself in front of him or her one day. Is this a person you want making decisions on your speeding ticket, or your loved one’s emergency PFA petition? If the wrong person gets the job, you will have 6 years to regret it.