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Franklin County ponders new district justice plan

May 24, 2002|BY STACEY DANZUSO

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - A growing population and number of complex cases has prompted Franklin County Court officials to ask the state to add a seventh district justice to the county system.

Currently the county is divided into six regions with a justice in each to hear cases at the "grassroots" level, said Court Administrator William Sheaffer.

Sheaffer and President Judge John Walker hammered out the plan that attempts to alleviate the burden in the most populated districts and redraws the lines of four out of six districts.

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The newest district would cover Guilford and Quincy townships and the Borough of Mont Alto.

A seventh district justice would lower the average caseload and add an extra person to the 24-hour, on-call rotation of justices.

"The primary reason is to give relief to the two busiest districts," Walker wrote in the proposal.

The district justice system was established in the late 1960s, and the state requires judicial districts to re-establish or realign the number of justices and boundaries every 10 years after each federal census, Sheaffer said.

Population, geography, convenience to the public and caseload were all factors in the realignment, he said.

"We have been considering for a number of years some way to give relief to a couple of magistrates," he said.

After trying different scenarios to reduce the volume in the Chambersburg and Waynesboro offices, officials settled on making Chambersburg its own district and Waynesboro and Washington Township its own.

Franklin County has had six district justices for 20 years, when it removed two justices in order to be more efficient.

In the two decades since, however, the number of cases being filed has risen. Though it is finally leveling off, Sheaffer said the number of felonies and misdemeanors, which require more work from the justices, is still rising.

District justices are the first stop in the legal system in Pennsylvania. They handle everything from criminal cases to landlord-tenant disputes, small claims, consumer matters and private complaints,

Franklin County's six district justices should average 3,675 cases each. In reality, busy districts like Chambersburg handle as many as 5,500 cases a year while Mercersburg sees only 1,660 a year.

The realignment would drop the average annual caseload in Chambersburg to 4,749, according to the plan.

The realignment also affects other districts. Hamilton Township would join Fannett, Letterkenny, Lurgan and Metal townships as one district; and Greene Township would join Shippensburg, Orrstown and Southampton Township as a district.

No changes would be made to the Greencastle-Antrim Township district or to the Mercersburg district, which includes all of southwestern Franklin County.

The county must file the file plan with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by June 30.

Under the proposal, the changes would not take effect until January 2004.

A public hearing on the plan, which is available for review in all public libraries, will be held at 1:30 p.m. May 30 in the Franklin County Courthouse in Chambersburg.

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