A low bar? District judges not required to be barred attorneys in Pennsylvania

From controversial bond decisions to accusations of misconduct, several magisterial district judges in southwestern Pennsylvania have prompted headlines and scrutiny in recent months.

So, what does it take to qualify as one of these lower court judges? Voters we spoke with in Pittsburgh had no idea that the bar is set lower than passing the bar exam.

“I would think at least a law degree,” guessed Pittsburgh resident Terri Boyt, who was later shocked to learn that many district judges have actually never attended law school.

According to data provided by the state in April, more than half of the 495 active magisterial district judges are not lawyers. Forty percent, meantime, do have law degrees.

But Pennsylvania is far from the only state where individuals don’t need a law degree to tap the gavel; 32 states allow at least some low court judges to take the bench as non-attorneys.

Pennsylvania, however, is among a smaller group of only six total states where voters can elect those non-attorneys.

For comparison, in nearby New Jersey, district judges are called “municipal judges.” They are appointed to their positions, and are required to not only be attorneys, but to have practiced law for at least five years. In neighboring Ohio, six years is required.

In Pennsylvania, however, district judges who are not attorneys need only to complete a one-month course and then pass a subsequent exam.

And, those who are elected don’t need to pass prior to running, only prior to assuming office.

Republican State Representative Kate Klunk, who represents a portion of York County, wants to change that.

“What happens, and we’ve seen this in York County, we’ve seen this across the state, we have individuals who win those MDJ races in November, and they haven’t passed the test. They can’t serve on day one and then the people are left without somebody to serve them in that particular position.”

Klunk, an attorney herself, added “so then you have senior judges who have to fill in, or another judge within the local court system who has to take on the cases. That bogs down the courts and it’s just not the most efficient use of our time and the courts’ time. There are plenty of cases out there that need to be heard and justice is not being served when we don’t have a judge sitting on the bench.”

In the instance that a judge fails the test, a retake is permitted, she said.

As an alternative, Klunk wants to see candidates required to take the course and pass the exam prior to filing their paperwork to run for public office.

We asked: why not just require candidates to have law degrees? Klunk told us that Pennsylvania is a diverse state in terms of population, and in some counties, lawyers aren’t plentiful.

“It’s hard to find attorneys to fill the district attorney spots, fill the public defender spots, and be those attorneys dealing with family law and estate planning in their local communities, so I think it would be very hard to fill those positions, so you would see a lot of vacancies throughout the commonwealth and that wouldn’t be good for our courts either.”

Ann Schiavone, Associate Professor of Law at the Thomas R. Kline School of Law of Duquesne University, also noted that finding lawyers who are willing and able to take on the role in rural areas of the state could prove challenging.

She said she respects the fact that the legislature has not required district justices to have law licenses, but said that older rules should be looked at frequently to ensure that they continue to make sense in modern times.

While some states require a seasoned attorney for the job, she further noted that magisterial judges can serve different functions in different states.

In Pennsylvania, district judges essentially oversee the early stages of both civil matters, including landlord-tenant disputes, as well as criminal cases. They hold preliminary hearings and set bail.

In recent months, certain district judges have received criticism for choices regarding bail.

Law enforcement has been critical of District Judge Xander Orenstein, a non-attorney who has repeatedly released suspects on non-monetary bond. In one case, an accused drug dealer was released and later failed to appear for court.

But, district judges do have a certain amount of discretion, and their judgment isn’t necessarily impacted by education.

“It’s true, having a law degree doesn’t mean that you’re going to have a different opinion on bond,” Schiavone said. “And, certainly, lawyers get in trouble with the law sometimes.”

Earlier this year, Channel 11 reported on now-former District Judge Anthony Saveikis who resigned from the bench amid misconduct accusations. Saveikis, according to records, is an attorney.

In Pennsylvania, complaints can be filed against judges for free and without legal representation.

And, if you disagree with a district judge’s decision, you have the option to appeal your case to a higher court in Pennsylvania, where there’s a new record, Schiavone said.

“There are a few states that still don’t have that right, and they have magistrates that are not lawyers. That, to me, is problematic,” Schiavone said. “But, the fact that we have this kind of safety net in Pennsylvania that allows you to go to the Court of Common Pleas and have a new justice, a new trial, whether a bench trial or not, is important.”

Pennsylvanians also have the option of voting their magistrates out when the time comes. Currently, these judges serve six-year terms in Pennsylvania, earning about $110,000 annually. They are required to complete an annual 32-hour continuing education course.

We asked Schiavone what voters should have in mind when they head to the polls to vote for a district judge.

“Citizens should consider the same sort of things that they consider for their legislators, in that you want someone of high character, you want someone who can make good decisions... it would be wonderful in my opinion for district justices to all be lawyers, but if you choose to vote someone in that is not, then they should have the ability to use their reason, use their logic, and make good decisions that are good for justice.”

Voters we spoke with said that moving forward, they’ll be considering a candidate’s legal background when heading to the polls.

“Yeah, definitely going to do my research,” Boyt said

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