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.