As part of my Public Safety Spotlight series, we will take a look at the prestigious position of Magisterial District Judge within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The first question one may ask: Is a "Judge" really part of "Public Safety"? The simple answer to that question: most definitely. Arguably, the Magisterial District Judge has an equally important part in the safety of the "public at large" as the police agencies in their bailiwick do. But more on that later.
The next questions one may have: What is a Magisterial District Judge? What do they do? How do I become one?
Let us start with the basics of who and what they are. The office of Magisterial District Judge (herein out abbreviated to MDJ) is one of the most important local elected offices that Pennsylvania has. The position is established by PA State Statute, and MDJ's are elected officials who must run for their office once every six years. Philadelphia is the only area of Pennsylvania that doesn't have MDJ's; they have Municipal and Traffic Court Judges instead. In all other areas, MDJ's are charged with conducting summary trials, preliminary arraignments and hearings, and civil hearings concerning matters related to lawsuits under $12,000 and landlord/tenant matters. After normal duty hours, they are also charged with hearing Protection from Abuse Emergency orders. MDJ's must remain totally and one hundred percent impartial in all matters that come before them, in order to maintain the integrity of the justice system as a whole.
Additionally, should the Judge choose to do so, he or she is also able to legally marry anyone wishing to do so. This is a viable option for those with limited funds for a "traditional wedding" or those who do not belong to any religious congregation.
When a police officer files an arrest, whether it be a Summary citation for parking, traffic or non-traffic offenses all the way up to Criminal Complaints for Felony charges, he or she must file those charges at the MDJ office where the offense is alleged to have occurred. Those charges then either go out by summons or by warrant, depending on a number of circumstances and legal requirements.Generally, an MDJ is able to accept guilty and not-guilty pleas on Summary offenses and assess appropriate penalties, which can range from fines and costs to jail time, depending on the offense. In Criminal offenses, he or she makes the decision on whether or not there is a "preponderance of evidence", meaning the Affiant (the charging police agency) has established a "prima facie"case and that there is enough evidence to take the charges to a trial before the Court of Common Pleas.
In matters involving Criminal offenses, the MDJ has the important task of deciding bail. The MDJ must consider a multitude of factors in deciding bail, one of which (among many others) is the threat that the alleged offender is to the safety of the public at large, based upon the nature of the crime and other circumstances.
MDJ's also preside over civil hearings. These include lawsuits between private or commercial parties who are filing claims ranging between $1 and $12,000. Following these hearings, Orders of Execution can be initiated at the MDJ office by the winning party, which results in a Levy and Sale against tangible properties of the Defendant. An MDJ also hears landlord/tenant disputes, and can approve evictions when appropriate or necessary. These tasks are typically carried out by a certified Pennsylvania State Constable, whose position we will visit on another day.
MDJ's, as are all other Judges in the Commonwealth of PA, are governed by a specific set of rules, known as the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Rules Governing Standards of Conduct of Magisterial District Judges. Alleged violations or issues with MDJ's are investigated by the PA Judicial Board of Conduct.
In order to become a Magisterial District Judge, one must reside in one of the townships or boroughs that their elected office covers (most times, this is more than one jurisdiction). They then file petitions, as any other elected position, to be placed on the election ballot. If they are successful in their efforts, they are then sworn in as an MDJ. However, before taking office, he or she must have completed the Minor Judiciary Education Board course certifying them to perform the duties of MDJ, or be member of the Bar of the Supreme Court.
As you can see, MDJ's play a vital role in Public Safety and the Civil and Criminal Justice System of Pennsylvania. Without them, the ability to assure justice to the citizens of the Commonwealth would surely be impossible.