PA magistrates: what are we voting for?

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 4/14/21

WAYNE COUNTY, PA — Signs along the roadways, posts on social media, letters in the mail—if you live in Wayne County, it’s been hard to miss the fact that a few magisterial court …

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PA magistrates: what are we voting for?

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WAYNE COUNTY, PA — Signs along the roadways, posts on social media, letters in the mail—if you live in Wayne County, it’s been hard to miss the fact that a few magisterial court justice seats are up for election, and more than a few residents have thrown their hats into the ring. With Judge Ronald Edwards recently retiring, the magistrate race in the county’s northern tier is particularly packed, with seven candidates all vying for one spot. The incumbents in the county’s other two district courts are also facing challengers this year. 

“There are quite a few running for magistrate this time,” Bureau of Elections Director Cindy Furman said. “Magistrate is one of three offices in Pennsylvania that can cross file, meaning candidates can be on both the Republican and Democratic nominee ballot. All [the candidates] are hoping to get at least one of the nominations so they can go on to November.”

What do magisterial district judges do?

Magistrates have been described as being on the “frontline” of the commonwealth’s judicial system, “the gatekeepers of the court system” and the type of judge residents are most likely to come into contact with, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

They have a range of responsibilities. Magistrates preside over small claim civil disputes for potential damages of up to $12,000, landlord-tenant disputes and traffic cases. They can also perform weddings and issue search warrants, arrest warrants and emergency protection orders. For criminal matters, magistrates perform arraignments, set bail and hold criminal preliminary hearings.

What are the requirements?

District magistrates must meet the following criteria: 

  • At least 21 years of age
  • A resident of Pennsylvania
  • A resident of the magisterial district in which they’re running (for at least a year ahead the election)
  • Certified by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts as successfully completing a training and education program administered by the Minor Judiciary Education Board. The program involves a four-week course and four-hour exam.

Attorneys admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar Association do not need to complete this training.

Once elected, magisterial district judges are required to attend and successfully complete 32 hours of continuing education annually. They serve six-year terms before they must run for reelection and are not limited in the number of times they can run, but must retire by age 75.

Magistrates under the spotlight

Pennsylvania media outlets Spotlight PA and PennLive began questioning whether or not PA taxpayers were “getting their money’s worth” from the commonwealth’s magistrates. The investigative report found that while all magistrates earn the same handsome salary of more than $93,000 plus benefits, 10 percent had 60 days or more with no case proceedings in 2019. A smaller group, 14 magistrates, had no case proceedings for 90 days or more that same year. The report recommended that “some judges simply don’t have enough work, and some offices could be eliminated or combined to save taxpayer money.” 

According to the report’s data, Wayne County magistrates seemed to be among the busier in the state. Both of the incumbents in this year’s election surpassed the expected number of days that magistrates typically work in 2019, meaning they oversaw cases on weekends or holidays. The now-retired Judge Edwards saw 53 days with no case proceedings that year.

Who is running in Wayne County this year?

Note: All candidates are running on both the Republican and Democratic ballots in the primary.

Magisterial district judge 22-3-01 (Hawley Borough, Dreher, Lake, Lehigh, Palmyra, Paupack, Salem and Sterling townships) 

Bonnie L. Carney (incumbent)

John Langton 

Magisterial district judge 22-3-02 (Honesdale, Prompton and Waymart boroughs, Canaan, Cherry Ridge, South Canaan and Texas townships) 

Kay Bates

Linus H. Myers (incumbent)

Magisterial district judge 22-3-04 (Bethany Borough, Berlin, Buckingham, Clinton, Damascus, Dyberry, Lebanon, Manchester, Mount Pleasant, Oregon, Preston, Scott and Starrucca townships) 

Danene Van Horn 

Michael J. Farley 

Jimmy Johnson 

Sean LeStrange 

Kerin Podunajec 

Jonathan J. Dunsinger 

Lothar Holbert

The primary election is taking place this year on Tuesday, May 18.

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