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Candidates for Cumberland County’s two available common pleas judge seats were queried over marijuana policy and the organization of the county’s growing court system during a forum Tuesday night.

The forum was hosted by several local conservative-leaning groups, although as with most of the local races on the 2019 ballot, the level of partisanship was relatively low.

The contest for the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas features five candidates — Kirk Sohonage, Matt Smith, Lisa Grayson, Ronald Tomasko and Derek Clepper.

Each of the candidates is cross-filed with both political parties with the exception of Clepper, who is running only as a Republican.

Major points of policy discussion for judges are relatively limited given that, as all the candidates agreed, the job of a judge is to accurately apply the law as written, regardless of whether they personally agree with the law.

Given the current discussion in Harrisburg about marijuana legalization, the candidates were asked if they consider it a “gateway drug,” harkening to the long-standing debate over whether marijuana is conducive to the use of harder drugs.

“I think the answer is yes, it is, but we have to be mindful that we follow the law of the commonwealth,” Tomasko said. “As a state court trial judge, we can only apply state law.”

“It certainly is but it’s not the only gateway drug,” Sohonage said, adding that opioid painkillers and alcohol often serve the same purpose.

Several candidates agreed that marijuana should be re-scheduled from its current federal classification as a Schedule I substance, the most dangerous drug tier under federal guidelines. This scheduling often influences charging procedure and penalties under federal and state laws, depending on how they are written.

“It has a medical use so I think it should be reschedule as a Schedule II, but as a commonwealth judge you enforce the laws as they are now, not as you think they should be,” Smith said.

Grayson cited her experience with a friend who has greatly benefited from medical marijuana while undergoing cancer treatment.

The candidates also discussed the county’s physically expanding judiciary, which will expand from six to seven judges in 2020 due to population growth.

One of the two open seats in the 2019 election is to fill this new position, with the second to fill the position of former Judge Skip Ebert, who vacated his seat to become the county’s district attorney after former county DA David Freed left to become a federal prosecutor.

In larger counties, several candidates noted, common pleas courts are often specialized between criminal and different types of civil cases. But in Cumberland County, each judge and their staff are used as generalists.

“As we grow I think we certainly need to set up divisions,” Sohonage said.

Smith said there are roughly five times more criminal cases than civil cases, but both he and Tomasko said civil cases can be very intensive and should not be pushed to the sideline by the sheer volume of criminal cases.

Grayson also suggested that the county have a specific docket stream, often referred to as “family court,” for divorce, child custody and other domestic relations issues that are critical to the well-being of the community.

Cumberland County has a domestic relations office that enforces child support, alimony and similar matters, but these orders are created by court ruling and the office does not have a dedicated jurist who decides such cases.

“It’s time for us to divide our courts,” Grayson said. “Our size dictates it as well. York County and Dauphin County have their own family courts.”

“Whatever we decide to do, it has to be that more people get access to the court, and that we don’t have backlogs and everyone get their case heard,” Clepper said.

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Email Zack at zhoopes@cumberlink.com.