Pennsylvania’s fiscal watchdog is calling for better training of the judges who most often serve as a person’s first exposure to the criminal justice system.
The suggestion by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale comes in response to revelations last month that a magisterial district judge in Erie incorrectly classified hundreds of civil complaints as criminal cases, trapping people in the criminal justice system who should not have been there in the first place.
An audit that DePasquale’s office released in July revealed that former Judge Brenda Williams-Nichols misfiled 880 civil complaints as criminal theft complaints. Upon further examination by Erie County’s president judge, another 2,200 cases were found to be misfiled going back to 2001.
This avoided filing fees for the complainant and allowed the county to serve as a collection agency. It also left individuals who did not commit a crime with a criminal record.
A further review found 3,000 misclassified civil cases dating back to 2001. Erie County President Judge John Trucilla told Erie News Now he sealed the cases last week.
The auditor general’s finding came as part of a routine audit of the county’s magisterial district court.
Pennsylvania’s 517 magisterial district judges are located in every county but Philadelphia, handling hundreds of thousands of cases a year.
These elected officials handle small civil claims, landlord-tenant disputes, preliminary hearings, and offenses that don’t require a jury trial, among other minor disputes. District judges are the lowest level of the state’s judicial system.
Magisterial district judges also do not need to be a lawyer or have attended law school to run or be elected.
DePasquale said at a Harrisburg press conference Monday that he is in discussions with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, run by the state Supreme Court, to make three changes.
He suggested that the AOPC should review each county’s district court for similar issues, strengthen required training for magisterial district judges, and make sure charging documents explain the difference between civil and criminal complaints — specifically, that pleading guilty to the latter results in a criminal record.
“The difference between paying an overdue library bill or an overdue school lunch bill, versus pleading guilty to a crime, is immensely different,” DePasquale said.
All these changes could be done administratively, without legislative action, DePasquale added.
Stacey Witalec, a spokesperson for the state courts system, said in an email that a statewide review by the office completed since the audit’s release “does not suggest that this was a practice occurring in any other district court.”
District judge training is handled by a separate board. Witalic said the AOPC would ask for a review of training procedures.
As for the forms, Witalec said that it “remains to be seen if the process is as unclear as the auditor general suggests but with regard to the forms, we will ask the Criminal Procedural Rules Committee to review whether changes are needed.”
DePasquale doesn’t think increasing basic requirements, such as requiring a law degree, for a magisterial judgeship is necessary.
“Shifting this to making sure that you have to be a lawyer is a bridge too far. That’s not gonna happen, even though as a voter I tend to vote that way,” DePasquale said. He thinks expanded training is a more realistic reaction.
The state’s 2019-20 budget allocated $744,000 for magisterial district judge education.