|Magisterial District Judge Joe Barner|
Imagine a judicial system with no magisterial district judges. Instead, there were Justices of Peace who were paid only if a Defendant was found guilty. They wore no robes. Their courtrooms consisted of their parlor, where coffee and cookies would be served.
This was the world of law enforcement in 1967-8. At that time, Joe Barner had other things on his mind. Like dodging rocket attacks in Da Nang, where he was a military policeman with the Air Force. "If I survived, I was going to do something with my life," he vowed. But what? His parents had no money to send him to school. They urged him to consider law enforcement. In 1970, he become a patrolman with Bethlehem Township. Now a Senior Magisterial District Judge, he is still quite active.
Both police work and the minor judiciary have changed dramatically in the 46 years since Barner first became a police officer. On the day of his interview, Barner was hearing cases, not in his living room, but a courtroom on Stefko Boulevard. Wearing a black robe Barner was offering an Arabic interpreter instead of coffee and cookies.for a young college student charged with a minor criminal offense.
Though he admitted that he likes to "fly below the radar," Barner took the time to discuss his lengthy career in criminal justice.
When he first started in law enforcement, there was no DNA evidence. Officers would "wait forever" for state police to come up with a match on fingerprints lifted with scotch tape. File drawers held criminal records that were often misplaced
Barner, who wanted to make a difference, put himself through Alvernia College by going to school at night. He earning a Bachelor's degree in criminal justice. From there it was night school at Temple and a Master's degree in Education. He was set to pursue a doctorate until he realized he'd be attending classes at the same time that his daughter was studying to be a pharmacist. .
In addition to his education, Barner also attended the state police academy, and was also selected for training at the FBI National Academy in Quantico.
As he gained education and experience, Barner rose through the ranks of the police department, and eventually became Chief. It was a position he held for 22 years. Calling him an "excellent" police officer, Commissioner Tom Nolan credits Barner with starting the "tradition of a well educated police department" before being elected as a Magisterial District Judge in 2000.
For the next 15 years, he served on the frontline of Pennsylvania's judicial system. Though called the minor judiciary, these judges handle the majority of cases considered, from neighbor squabbles to a disputed parking ticket. In Barner's courtroom on Route 191, he posted an excerpt of a decision from the late Chief Justice Ralph Cappy, who called magistrates "the bulwark between the police and rights of citizens."
The biggest challenge Judge Barner has seen on the frontline are young adults caught up in serious crime. He noted that most have no family support, no job and no military option. By default, they lapse into a life of crime.
He also laments the truancy cases that magisterial district judges often see. He said he tries to find out why, and in one instance of a good student attending Northeast Middle School, discovered that she had been the victim of bullying.
But he loves the "day to day contact with everyday people" who bring different personalities to his courtroom.
"I've married quite a few people over the past 16 years," he said with a smile. He will bump into people at the store and they tell him, "You married me!"
"Hope it worked, he answers.
Though forced to step down from the bench at age 70, Northampton County Courts are using Barner and three other senior judges to hear cases in vacant districts.
Barner and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, have two daughters. Rene is a pharmacist while Kim works at Freemansburg Elementary School.