Monday, September 16, 2013

A Tale of Two Magisterial Re-Alignment Plans



On Friday, I told you about a plan by Northampton County's fifteen District Judges that tinkers with one already approved by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. A realignment approved in June will consolidate two magisterial districts in the northwestern corner of the County, forcing incumbent District Judges Diane Marakovits and Robert Hawke to face each other in an election. In an effort to avoid an election, Hawke came up with an alternative plan that keeps keeps the northwestern districts intact, but eliminates the Bethlehem Township District over which Joseph Barner presides. Since he plans to retire, his district can be split up without forcing incumbents to face each other in an election. A majority of District Judges have sided with Hawke, but the local police chiefs affected are outraged, as evidenced by these excerpts of letters they sent to president Judge Stephen Baratta:

The Approved Plan: In response to a directive to eliminate one Magisterial District, then President Judge F.P. Kimberly McFadden established a committee. It included the Deputy Court Administrator who acts as liaison with District Judges; Judge Michael Koury, a District Judge himself for twelve years; Judge Craig Dally, a former State Representative with significant experience related to redistricting; and the late District Judge Gay Elwell, who served at the request of other District Judges.

Their goal was to provide a fair allocation of the workload among the different offices, while simultaneously providing citizens and police officers with rational and convenient boundary lines.

Their decision to consolidate two, contiguous districts in the northwestern corner of the County was recommended unanimously, approved by the judges, subjected to public scrutiny and then forwarded to the Supreme Court.

The District Judge Plan: A District Judge approached Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ron Castille and asked if an alternative plan could be submitted that would avoid an election contest between the two District Judges whose districts were being consolidated. He agreed.

On August 20, the Northampton County Magisterial District Judges Association convened and approved an alternative plan that eliminates the District covering Bethlehem Township. The vote was a bare majority, 8 to 7. It was not approved by the judges. There was no public scrutiny, and a police chief was denied input.

It avoids an election between two incumbent District Justices by abolishing the Magisterial District for Bethlehem Township.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

BO,

Can you find out who the eight DJ's that voted for the plan and who the seven DJ's that voted against the plan? This will help the voters in the next election.

Thank you,
Northampton County Voter

Anonymous said...

What can we do? Is anyone representing the rest of the counties interest?

Anonymous said...

I humbly second the request of 6:28. Thank you for your work on this story, Bernie.

Another NorCo Voter

Anonymous said...

In the case of Magisterial Districts, they should be set up according to workload not area and population. You can't expect a high crime area to have a lower case load than, lets say hanover twsp. This is not easy to do because the rural areas will still have to travel a considerable distance to a sitting magistrate, however it can be done. Staffing and workload should be and must be a priority when re-doing these disricts. You already have the staff assigned so that should not be much of a problem. The problem is redistricting. If I recall accurately, didn't the County have several magistrates retire during the past several years? Why wasn't this issue dealt with at that time?

Anonymous said...

Why isn't this issue being addressed by the County's Legal and judicial Committee?

Anonymous said...

The county's legal and judicial committee would not have any say in this matter. The judicial system is elected and an independent branch of government. The legislature (ie County Council) can not address issues related to court administration.

Now they could cut off funding or adjust the courts budget in a few month when it is budget time, but that's about it.

Seriously take a Government Class. Join the Citizens Academy and you might learn something!

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Can you find out who the eight DJ's that voted for the plan and who the seven DJ's that voted against the plan? This will help the voters in the next election."

I will try. Obviously, Hawke and Marakovits supported the change. I believe Barner, Narlesky and Capobianco opposed. I believe the rest were caught is the middle.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"The county's legal and judicial committee would not have any say in this matter. The judicial system is elected and an independent branch of government. The legislature (ie County Council) can not address issues related to court administration."

They have no say, just as the court has no say, and the DJs j=have no say. It is up to the Pa Supreme Court. But they could have reviewed the plans for purposes of transparency. Of course, McClure has not convened his committee in 4 years, so the judges probably don't know it even exists.

Bernie O'Hare said...

6:28, I just learned the vote was via secret ballot.

Anonymous said...

Secret ballot. Give me a break. Plenty of transparency with that. This vote by the magistrates must be looked into to. Lets get a gender jury to look at it.

Anonymous said...

Grand jury

Anonymous said...

Secret ballot? Was this a Callahan operation? Where's open government?

Anonymous said...

Moving a DJ makes the most sense. Where is reason here ?