Court System Changes: Realignment

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Last October’s post about court system changes discussed structural changes, such as combining different tiers of state trial courts into a single tier, transferring jurisdiction over some types of cases from one type of court to another, or placing multiple courts under a single administration. These changes are driven by a need for efficiency, both to decrease costs during times of tight budgets and to insure fairness in access to justice.

In July 2010, we discussed how municipal courts in New Jersey, driven primarily by budget concerns, are using shared services and consolidation agreements to combine several local courts into one. This doesn’t change the structure of the court system, but it does close courts in some municipalities, so that some parties may have to travel farther to the court that serves them.

Yet another type of court system change can be found in Pennsylvania, driven in part by budget concerns and in part to provide all citizens with equal access to justice. Pennsylvania’s Magisterial District Courts have limited geographic and subject-matter jurisdiction; some serve a single municipality, some serve only part of a municipality, but most serve several cities, boroughs, and townships.

Pennsylvania’s state Constitution directs the state Supreme Court to establish the number and boundaries of magisterial districts “for the efficient administration of justice” within each district. Pennsylvania statutory law gives the state Supreme Court “supervisory and administrative authority” over Magisterial District Courts. Another statutory provision requires the reestablishment of the number and boundaries of all magisterial districts every ten years following the Federal census, and also allows the numbers and boundaries of these courts to be “revised from time to time as required for the efficient administration of justice.” Yet another statutory provision prescribes the classes of Magisterial District Courts and the population density allowed for each.

To implement the constitutional and statutory requirements, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court periodically issues orders reestablishing some Magisterial District Courts, changing the boundaries of others, and sometimes eliminating some in each judicial district (most Pennsylvania judicial districts are a single county, but a few include two counties). These Supreme Court orders were issued for all districts in 2000 and again in 2013; new and amended orders for some districts were also issued in intervening years. The Supreme Court doesn’t issue these orders arbitrarily; they are based on a plan submitted by the President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in each district, and that plan includes a detailed analysis of each Magisterial District Court’s caseload and each magisterial district’s population density.

If a Magisterial District Court is simply reestablished with its original boundaries, there is no effect on the population served by that court. But when a court is eliminated and its jurisdiction transferred to another court – or when jurisdictions are transferred among several courts in response to population density changes – some municipalities and their residents will find themselves served by a different court than the one that has served them for years. Thus, the orders are generally referred to as “realignment orders” because the realignment of district boundaries has the greatest effect.

Like the consolidation of municipal courts in New Jersey, the realignment of Magisterial District Courts in Pennsylvania can inconvenience some citizens. Depending on where they live within the new district, some will have to travel farther to get to court, but many will have a shorter trip. But since citizens’ access to justice is affected in some way, the proposed realignment plan is open to public comment. An example a public notice soliciting comments in one county may be found here.

Arguments pro and con are often found in local news report and blog posts, and some plans may change based on public comment. A common “con” argument is that reducing the number of Magisterial District Courts in a district will make that district’s courts more crowded. But with budget pressure to reduce the number of court facilities and personnel, and the statutory requirement to base realignments on population density, the pain of more crowded courts is spread fairly uniformly. In the end the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has the final say.

Many realignments take impending Magisterial District Court justices’ retirements into account. If a justice is about to retire, elimination of that court is often tied to that retirement date. This saves the taxpayers the expense of an election to replace a retiring justice, only to have the newly elected justice serve an abbreviated term.

Many Pennsylvania counties’ websites – or the website of the Court of Common Pleas for that county’s judicial district – include lists of municipalities served by each Magisterial District Court. Some even include maps, or online search features that show your court based on your address. But in many counties, there is no such information available online – unless one is willing to look up, read, and decipher the relevant realignment orders. Fortunately, CourtReference’s Guide to Pennsylvania Courts shows you the cities, boroughs, and townships that are served by each Magisterial District Court in every Pennsylvania county.


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