For many people in Pennsylvania, contact with a magisterial district judge is likely the only interaction with the judiciary they will ever have.
But, who are the magisterial district judges and what exactly do they do?
“Every day is different,” Magisterial District Judge Richard Dougherty said. “There’s a little bit of everything. We really are the minor judiciary. We are the lower of the courts in the commonwealth.”
In broad terms, magisterial district judges hear and decide lower-level civil and landlord tenant cases, they deal with all traffic citations and nontraffic summary cases and the early proceedings in nearly all criminal cases.
Civil cases cannot exceed $12,000, according to Pennsylvania state court rules.
Magisterial district judges are elected to six year terms. They are not required to be bar certified lawyers, but are required to complete mandatory training at the beginning of their tenure and continuing education throughout their term.
There are 10 magisterial district judges in Cumberland County and each handles cases for a designated geographical area ranging from Magisterial District Judge Anthony Adams on the western side of the county in Shippensburg to Dougherty, whose district includes a portion of the West Shore.
“We have a mix of cases through the week,” Dougherty said. “Traffic, nontraffic, civil, landlord tenant. No day is the same.”
For one week every 10 weeks the judges in the county rotate as on-call judge and handle all criminal cases in the county that arise outside of normal business hours.
Magisterial district judges also have the authority to issue arrest and search warrants as well as criminal summons.
Nearly all criminal cases begin at the magisterial district judge level.
Police present the judge with an affidavit of probable cause, and if appropriate, an arrest warrant or criminal summons is issued.
“For some people this is the only time they come to a court in their entire lives,” Magisterial District Judge Mark Martin said. “You want to make sure that they have faith in the system and that the system is going to be fair to them. I’m sitting in the middle of the courtroom, and I’ve got the rights of society versus the rights of the individual that I have to weigh. … I try to keep those scales in balance as best as I can.”
If a warrant is issued, the defendant is brought before the judge for a preliminary arraignment where the defendant is informed what they are charged with, provided information about applying for a public defender and bail is set.
Aside from some of the most serious offenses like murder, magisterial district judges have wide discretion in setting the type or amount of bail.
This can range from releasing the defendant without any monetary conditions to outright denying bail.
Within 21 days, 14 if the defendant is held in prison, a preliminary hearing is to determine if there is enough evidence to move the case forward to the Court of Common Pleas.
“The criminal cases, at our level, it’s a less-stringent burden of proof,” Magisterial District Judge Charles Clement said. “If you picture the blindfolded scales of justice, it’s preponderance of evidence for civil cases, but for this it’s prima facie.
“On first blush of the evidence, do we have a crime and do we likely have the perpetrator of the crime,” he said. “I don’t say ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’ I say ‘there’s a prima facie case, send the case forward.’”
If there is not enough evidence to move forward, the judge can dismiss the case.
Cases involving a summary offense or certain DUI offenses can also be resolved at the preliminary hearing with the magisterial district judge imposing a penalty.
Roughly 13 percent of all criminal cases in Cumberland County are resolved at the lower court level, compared to less than 1 percent in neighboring Franklin and Perry counties, according to an analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel.
While criminal cases can be some of the most severe in terms of the behavior that brought the person in front of the judge, they not necessarily the most difficult to decide.
“Sometimes landlord-tenant cases are more difficult than criminal cases and some civil cases are more difficult than criminal cases,” Magisterial District Judge Charles Clement said. “Sometimes a civil case is a bit more intricate. … Landlord-tenant is sometimes more difficult because of the eviction, having to put somebody out.”
Clement, Dougherty and Magisterial District Judge Mark Martin pointed to a rise in truancy cases coming across their desks as one of the more difficult aspects of the job.
“With truancy cases, there’s a lot of pressure because I want to get it right,” Martin said. “Truancy is symptom that something else is going on in that child’s life or the family’s life. … Try and peel back the onion and find out what is inhibiting that kid from going to school. There’s always a reason.”
Martin said he tries to bring together school officials, family and the student when dealing with a truancy case to better understand what is underlying the missed attendance at school.