Amid all the shouting and accusations made at a public meeting about a proposal to close Elizabethtown’s magisterial district court, some very valid points were made.
One of these points was the source of the data that was used to reach the conclusion that the Elizabethtown court has the lightest workload. Lancaster County President Judge Dennis E. Reinaker said he asked Deputy Court Administrator Russell Glass to collect statistics for courts in Lancaster County and five other counties that are of the population category known as third-class counties: York, Dauphin, Cumberland, Chester and Lehigh counties.
Mr. Reinaker said he chose those counties because they are similar in size to Lancaster County and they are in south-central Pennsylvania. But Berks County is also in that population class and borders Lancaster County — why wasn’t it included? And Lehigh County is in the Lehigh Valley, which is pretty far from south-central Pennsylvania. Perhaps Mr. Reinaker had a valid reason for including Lehigh but not Berks, but he didn’t mention it when he made his case for closing the court at a joint meeting of the school board and several municipal boards on Thursday, Aug. 30.
When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considers the question of whether the Elizabethtown court should be eliminated, it should ask Mr. Reinaker why he chose to include Lehigh County but not Berks County. The Supreme Court might well decide to dismiss this out of hand because district lines will have to be redrawn anyway with the 2020 Census coming up soon. But if it does give serious consideration to Mr. Reinaker’s plan, it should certainly use its own statistical analysis, and that analysis should include all of the third-class counties. In addition to the ones Mr. Reinaker included and Berks County, those are Erie, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Northampton and Westmoreland counties.
But another point worthy of serious consideration was raised by Elizabethtown lawyer Dan Stephenson. He noted that magisterial district judges with fewer cases have time to listen to all the witnesses that parties want to call. Mr. Stephenson said when losing parties feel like they got a fair hearing at the magisterial district court, they are less likely to appeal the case to the Court of Common Pleas. Since small claims cases heard by magisterial district judges can be for amounts as high as $12,000, it’s easy to see why losing parties would be tempted to appeal if they think they did not get a fair hearing. So cutting down on the number of magisterial district courts could be a foolish economy if it will send more cases to the higher courts.
In addition to Mr. Stephenson’s point, Gail Viscome and Amy McEvoy of the nonprofit group Elizabethtown Area Communities That Care took note about the good that judges can do when they are not overwhelmed. Ms. McEvoy, who runs the group’s alcohol education program, noted that many repeat offenders have a chance to become productive citizens if they are connected to resources to get help. And Ms. Viscome noted that the Elizabethtown court had been successful in dramatically reducing the truancy rate in Elizabethtown schools. An overwhelmed judge will not have time to find out why children are missing school; such a judge will just fine the parents and call the next case. But by finding out why children were missing school, the Elizabethtown court was able to reduce the rate of truancy dramatically.
The best thing for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to do in this case: Primum non nocere. First, do no harm. The Supreme Court should not sign off on the plan to eliminate the Elizabethtown court until studying whether reducing the number of magisterial district courts actually saves money. And if it does save money, the high court should consider whether the savings is worth the loss of public access to the courts.
How should the high court determine this? One way is to put this to an experiment. The “sixth class” group of counties is the largest;it consists of Armstrong, Bedford, Bradford, Carbon, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton,Columbia, Crawford, Elk, Greene, Huntingdon, Indiana, Jefferson, McKean, Mifflin, Perry, Pike, Somerset,Susquehanna, Tioga, Venango, Warren and Wayne counties. Why not add one magisterial district court in 12 of these 24 counties? The smallest of this group, Elk County, has two magisterial district courts; the largest, Crawford County, has four. So we’d see a significant difference in the workload by adding one judge to 12 of thecounties. And we might see that the 12 counties where the load was lightened on the magisterial district judges had some improvements not seen in the other 12 — fewer cases being appealed to higher courts, lower truancy rates or fewer repeat offenders.
State governments in the United States are often called “laboratories of democracy.” Let’s see some experimentation in this laboratory and find out what happens. We’ll never know until we try.
The preceding editorial is the opinion of The Elizabethown Advocate. Other opinions on this page are those of individual contributors. The Advocate aims to give its readers a wide variety of opinions.