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Franklin, Fulton judiciary to expand two years earlier

October 16, 2008|By DON AINES

Voters in Franklin and Fulton counties will be electing two new judges in 2009 as Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell last week signed a bill that would expand the 39th Judicial District of the Court of Common Pleas to five judges two years earlier than planned.

When House Bill 301 was introduced in February 2007, the fifth judge would have been elected in 2011 and taken office in January 2012. The bill in its final form moves the election up to 2009, with the new judge taking office in 2010.

The 39th District now has four judges, but President Judge John R. Walker is retiring at the end of this year. Walker, who could serve as a senior judge next year, said Friday that Judge Douglas W. Herman will become president judge.

Judge Carol Van Horn will be entering her 10th year on the bench and will be up for retention in 2009, said Carolyn Seibert-Drager, executive director of the Franklin County Bar Association.

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Additionally, voters in the northwest part of the county will be electing a magisterial district judge in District 39-3-03 to replace Richard Alloway, who resigned this year to run for the state Senate.

About 65 attorneys got the word on the fifth judge Friday at a previously scheduled meeting with the judges to discuss scheduling issues for next year, Seibert-Drager said. While a fifth judge will be added, there will still be four courtrooms, Court Administrator Neil Burkholder said.

"We have made initial plans to accomplish the office requirements. ... They are not finalized," Burkholder said Friday. "We'll be able to do it, but it will be tight."

The issue is less about the number of courtrooms, which are rarely in use simultaneously, than the judge's chambers and office space for a law clerk and secretary, Burkholder said. Even if a fifth judge were not seated until 2012, the county would not have added more space to the courthouse complex.

After Van Horn was elected in 1999, her offices were in a relatively small space on the second floor of the old courthouse before the former meeting room and office suite of the Board of County Commissioners was converted into a courtroom and supporting office space.

Seibert-Drager said there are about 150 full-time attorneys in Franklin and Fulton counties. Those who decide to run for the two offices can cross-file to run in the Republican and Democratic primaries in May 2009.

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