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Franklin Co. studies addition of magisterial districts

July 31, 1998

By DON AINES

Staff Writer, Chambersburg

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - An increase in crime and a growing disparity in caseloads has prompted a study to determine if more magisterial districts are need in Franklin County, Pa.

John R. Walker, president judge of the 39th District of the Court of Common Pleas, instructed Court Administrator William Sheaffer to gather statistics about caseloads and populations in Franklin County's six districts earlier this year.

"Our effort is to have as much parity as we can," Sheaffer said Thursday. He said the study is in its early stages and no recommendations have been made to the judge.

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"I've been here 15 years and in that time we've seen the Court of Common Pleas double to four judges," said District Justice Larry K. Meminger. At the same time, the number of district justices has remained at six for about the past 20 years.

Meminger and District Justices Larry G.Pentz and Gary L. Carter are on a committee looking into realigning or adding more districts. Meminger said the county needs two more districts.

"Our caseload increases every year," said Meminger, whose district covers Greene and Guilford townships. The last week he was on call, Meminger said he made 20 separate trips to his office outside regular office hours.

"The Chambersburg office is extremely busy," Sheaffer said of Carter's office. His district includes Chambersburg and Hamilton Township, with a population of more than 25,000, according to 1992 U.S. Census figures.

Sheaffer's figures showed Carter's office handled 882 criminal cases in 1997. Last year, District Justice John P. Weyman's office, covering seven northern municipalities with a population of about 16,000, handled 116 criminal cases.

Sheaffer said there also are small claims and traffic caseloads, but Carter's office remains at the top in both categories, with 1,005 civil cases and 3,224 traffic citations in 1997.

Meminger said he checked with the Pennsylvania Special Courts Judges Association and the caseloads for Carter, Pentz and him are above the state average.

"One county with a similar population and caseload has 10 or 12 district justices," Meminger said.

State law requires common pleas courts to re-establish the number and boundaries of magisterial districts every 10 years using U.S. census figures, Sheaffer said. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court would have to approve any change, he said.

Sheaffer said Walker set no deadline for the report, but added the law does not prevent the county from requesting a realignment before the 2000 census.

Although Fulton County, Pa., with three magisterial districts, is part of the 39th District, Sheaffer said he did not see any need for realignment there at this time.

Besides population and caseload, Sheaffer said geography is a consideration.

"You don't want to have a person travel miles and miles to receive district justice services," he said.

Sheaffer said the county had eight district justice offices until about 20 years ago, when offices in Hamilton Township and Scotland, Pa., were closed.

District justices' salaries are paid by the state, but their staff and office expenses are paid by the county, according to County Commissioner G. Warren Elliott. This year the budget for the six offices is $596,000.

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