Here come de judges - hundreds of them

November 03, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

SCOTLAND, Pa. - There are approximately 550 sitting district justices in Pennsylvania and, once a year for a week, all of them must come to a motel in Scotland to take a refresher course in criminal and civil justice.

They don't all come at once, said Robert E. Hessler, executive director of the Minor Judiciary Education Board, the agency that runs the courses for the State Supreme Court.

In addition to sitting district justices, about 90 retired, or senior district justices, plus all of Philadelphia's traffic court judges and bail commissioners have to take a weeklong continuing education course at the Comfort Inn at 3301 Black Gap Road.


No person in Pennsylvania who has been elected district justice can sit at a bench until he or she passes an intense four-week certification course given by the board.

Attorneys who serve as district justices don't have to take the qualifying course, Hessler said.

He said about 35 percent of those who take the course fail the final test. They can take the course again but they have to pass the test within nine months of being elected.

Those who can't pass the test in that time can't serve.

"It's not an easy test," said District Justice Larry Pentz of Waynesboro, who passed it in 1987. "If you don't apply yourself and study, you won't pass it."

The course covers criminal and civil laws and procedures, rules of evidence, judicial ethics, motor vehicle law, arrest, search and seizure, drug laws and the state's criminal codes.

Last year, the office in Scotland provided continuing education courses to 623 sitting and senior district justices and 115 attorney district justices, Hessler said. He said 88 people passed the four-week certification program in the three classes that were held last year.

Pentz said the mandatory annual continuing education course is important for sitting district justices.

"It's more relaxed than the qualifying course, but you have to pay attention," he said. "If you don't, you only hurt yourself. It's all stuff you need to know."

Course topics include updates on the state's criminal and civil laws and motor vehicle codes, sexual assault cases, mental illness and substance abuse, legal writing and research, use and abuse of power and right-to-know laws.

An average class size is about 37 students, Hessler said.

He has recruited a staff of about 25 instructors. Most are attorneys, although he brings in outside experts for specialized courses.

Pennsylvania's district justice system is the first level of court most residents see. District justices handle all criminal cases, up to and including murder, from arraignment through preliminary hearings, summary offenses and motor vehicle and traffic offenses. They issue search warrants, levy fines and handle civil cases up to $8,000.

They also can marry people.

"The vast majority of people are familiar with district justices," Hessler said. "It's usually the last vestige where people can go into court and know the judge. It's truly a community court."

The Minor Judiciary Education Board program started at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pa., in 1969. Prior to that, Pennsylvania operated with a justice of the peace system, Hessler said.

The board moved to Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., in 1978, the year Hessler, 54, was hired. It moved to the Comfort Inn 2 1/2 years ago, he said.

He said the Scotland location "is about as central as we're going to get on the major highway system."

The board's budget is about $605,000 a year. It supports Hessler's salary and that of his secretary. It also pays the tuition for the continuing education courses plus travel, lodging and meal expenses for the students.

Those taking qualifying courses pay their own expenses, but no tuition.

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