Lancaster County President Judge Dennis E. Reinaker heard from a packed and sometimes hostile crowd as he presented his proposal to close Elizabethtown’s magisterial district court office.
The magisterial district court is designed to be the most accessible court to the public. It is where minor matters often get their only court appearance and where major matters such as felony charges get bail decisions made and preliminary hearings held. Its judges do not have to be lawyers, though the most recent judge in the Elizabethtown court was a lawyer.
Nobody other than Reinaker and Russell Glass, deputy court administrator for Lancaster County Common Pleas Court, spoke in favor of closing the court during a joint meeting of elected officials from the Elizabethtown Area School District and the municipalities it serves held at Bainbridge Elementary School on Thursday, Aug. 30. Many elected officials and citizens spoke against it, including lawyers, a police officer and magisterial district judges from other counties.
Reinaker said he had asked Glass to compare the magisterial district courts in Lancaster County as well as five other counties that are of the population category known as third-class counties: York, Dauphin, Cumberland, Chester and Lehigh counties. Those counties have 101 district courts and the Elizabethtown court had the fewest cases filed of any them, Reinaker said. Also, with types of cases broken down into how many minutes of time a judge typically needs to deal with them, the Elizabethtown court had the lightest workload, he said. Reinaker said the state Supreme Court had asked county courts to consider judicial vacancies when considering courts to close and Magisterial District Judge Jayne F. Duncan’s abrupt resignation in April had created such a vacancy.
The first to speak was Stephen L. Mohr, chairman of the Conoy Township supervisors, who noted that the figures Reinaker and Glass had presented only included six of the 12 third-class counties in Pennsylvania. He said the other six (Berks, Erie, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Northampton and Westmoreland) were smaller counties and would likely have fewer cases. He also noted that the state Supreme Court is not asking counties to eliminate district courts at this time and said it would make more sense to wait until after the 2020 Census, when districts would have to be re-adjusted to account for population changes anyway.
“The tax savings – it’s unpredictable right now; it’s a guess at the best,” Mohr said.
Mohr said anyone who believes Reinaker is gullible enough to believe that a boat full of fresh lobster will be on the banks of the Susquehanna River the next morning and agree to pay in advance for the lobster.
“You’re being fed a line of (excrement),” Mohr said, drawing applause from the roughly 100 people in attendance.
Reinaker took offense to that.
“Nothing I said here tonight – and I mean nothing – hasn’t been the truth,” Reinaker said.
As far as which counties he chose for comparison, Reinaker said, “We’re going to compare ourselves to the best, not the worst.”
Gina Mariani, vice chair of the Conoy Township supervisors, said even if closing the court saves some money, it will cost the public time. She said she had to wait for an hour and a half to be heard at the Elizabethtown court when she had to go there at one point and five police officers were waiting along with her.
Amy McEvoy, who coordinates the alcohol education program for the nonprofit group Elizabethtown Area Communities That Care, told Reinaker that a judge who has more time to spend on each case can do a better job. McEvoy said a big problem with the court system is repeat offenders and that a judge who can connect a defendant with resources to get help is likely to prevent the person from offending again, which will save the court system money.
Reinaker acknowledged that different local courts take different approaches but said he was looking at things strictly by the numbers.
“We’re trying to be as objective as possible,” Reinaker said.
Gail Viscome, executive director of Elizabethtown Area Communities That Care, asked Reinaker to wait until after the 2020 census to make changes and noted that the Elizabethtown court had been successful in dramatically reducing the truancy rate in Elizabethtown schools.
Dan Stephenson, an Elizabethtown lawyer, said the higher caseload in Dauphin County would explain why he has to wait much longer to be heard in district courts there than in Lancaster County. He said he often has to wait three to four hours when he goes to Dauphin County. Also, he said, judges with fewer cases can take the time to hear all the witnesses that people want to bring. He said that means people are more likely to think they got a fair hearing, which means they are less likely to appeal to county courts of common pleas. He said any savings achieved by eliminating the district court would likely be eliminated by more appeals to common pleas court.
Terry Seiders, the school board president for the Elizabethtown Area School District, urged the public to make their opinions known. He said the school district office and the municipal offices of Elizabethtown Borough and Conoy, West Donegal and Mount Joy townships would collect comments in writing – on paper only, with email not accepted – through Monday, Sept. 10. Those would be forwarded to the county court and the state Supreme Court, which makes the final decision. Reinaker said he did not know when that decision would come, but he said it will most likely come before the end of the year, since the office is up for election in 2019 and delaying any longer would cause problems with that election.
In other business at the meeting, Elizabethtown Borough, West Donegal and Mount Joy townships approved new leadership for the Elizabethtown-West Donegal-Mount Joy Township Emergency Management Council. They approved new municipal representatives to the council and accepted the resignation of Warren Mueller Jr. as emergency management coordinator and named Gene Galeschewski as his successor. Conoy Township is not a part of the joint agency; it has its own emergency management coordinator.