It’s official. The state Supreme Court has issued an order to close District Judge Joseph S. Solomon’s office, which serves sections of Harrisburg’s downtown and midtown, at the end of the year. And in doing so, Pennsylvania’s highest court has denied six hopefuls the chance to become a magisterial district judge.
As one of those vying to become Solomon’s replacement, I saw my political career disappear in a New York second. As fast as I could say, “Jack Rabbit,” my political career ended. One minute I was delivering campaign literature, erecting yard signs, and knocking on doors, and the next, I was sitting on my living room sofa, watching TV and pigging out on junk food. Talk about a flash in the pan.
Before I filed my papers, garnered signatures and paid my filing fees, there had been rumors that the office might be closed. The Dauphin County Election Bureau even posted a notice on its web site warning hopefuls about the uncertainty regarding the office’s fate. But with no official ruling from the Supreme Court, the election bureau still accepted nominating petitions for the seat for the May 17 primary.
Even though I had been warned that the position might be eliminated, I had hoped the office would be spared. Why would Solomon’s office, which generated roughly $400,000 a year from fines and other costs, be the one destined for closure? It just didn’t make sense. And the fact that no other midstate district judge posts were on the chopping block just made the whole idea even more remote.
Last year, Dauphin County President Judge Todd A. Hoover confirmed that the option of closing magisterial district offices was on the table. Caseloads, relocation difficulty and other issues would be under consideration by Judge Hoover in making a recommendation to the state Supreme Court.
His review was prompted by a request from Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who asked president judges to take a look at their district courts to determine which could be eliminated through retirements or vacancies.
At the time, Art Heinz, a spokesman with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said the state was looking to close about 10 percent of its 550 magisterial district offices–or about 50 statewide. Reviews of the offices were being conducted by president judges, and the remainder through a mandated process triggered by the 2010 Census.
“When you don’t have enough money and you keep adding judges, you run out of money and that’s where we are now,” Heinz said.
For each magisterial district eliminated, Heinz said the state would save the judges’ salaries, averaging $78,000 a year, along with benefits and office expenses. Cases and staff members would be reassigned to other offices. With Judge Solomon’s annual caseload over 12,000 civil and criminal cases, I still held out hope. I continued to campaign. I invested in campaign materials, a website, and spent a large amount of time getting to know the voters in my district.
On April 19, I received a letter in the mail telling me that the entire office was off the ballot. I would not have the chance to be elected judge. Judge Jackie was not to be. So much for “A GoodWin for Justice.”
The decision to close Judge Solomon’s seat bars those of us who live in the city’s 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 12th Wards from voting for a district judge in this year’s elections. With the district judge seat removed from the May 17 primary, we will now have our judge picked for us by those who live and vote in other districts.
While the fact that I am now part of a large group of disenfranchised voters is distressing in its own right, I am troubled that there was no forethought as to how the district would be divided among Harrisburg’s four other district offices before the court order was issued. In addition, the timing of the announcement should have been made before the filing period began.
I am also disturbed at the lack of voter outrage in Harrisburg over the decision to close the office. In other areas of the state, opponents of the decision to close magisterial district offices have been quite vocal.
One of those urging that a magisterial district court office be kept open is Mayor of Braddock, John Fetterman.
Unlike Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson who has been mute on the subject, Fetterman has repeatedly spoken out against eliminating the local office of District Judge Ross C. Cioppa, describing the decision as an unfair burden to Braddock, a former steel town straining to get back on its feet.
“I think it’s important to maintain the office in this area,” said Fetterman. “It’s important to know the neighborhood, it’s important to know the context, and it’s important to know the people.”
In retrospect, with state government services on the guillotine all over Pennsylvania, it really was no surprise that the state judiciary — faced with a possible $17 million deficit – decided to eliminate Solomon’s office. And the fact that Judge Solomon had announced that he was planning to retire at the end of the year probably made the selection process that much easier.
The state Supreme Court looked at eliminating only magisterial district judges because the number of common pleas courts judges is set by the state Legislature, and therefore, cannot be reduced. But the number of magisterial district courts is set by the state Supreme Court and can be changed.
Even though there’s no recourse to overturn the decision, a public comment of support to keep the office open by our local officials would have been nice. To date, no one has stepped up and uttered a complaint. And that to me, is a big disappointment.