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How Does the Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court Work?
The Pennsylvania Magisterial District Court helps make up the minor courts of the state. Minor courts, also called special courts or peoples courts, are municipal court and traffic court, many of which are staffed with magisterial district judges. These courts are the initial level of the state’s judicial system and hear low-level cases.
Magisterial district judges have civil jurisdiction over small claims civil matters. Examples of civil topics that a magisterial district judge may hear and make decisions about are breaches of contract and trespassing. The court also has jurisdiction over landlord-tenant cases.
Typically, all criminal cases, including both felonies and misdemeanors, initially begin in the Magisterial District Courts because these are the courts that issue search warrants, arrest warrants, and summons. The judges are responsible for setting bail amounts, referring offenders to problem-solving courts, and conducting preliminary hearings. In a preliminary hearing, the magisterial judge will decide if a case has enough information and evidence to move to trial in the Court of Common Pleas. Some cases may not be sent to a higher court, and the judge in the magisterial position may decide penalties for a misdemeanor offense or accept guilty pleas. In summary cases, Magisterial District Court judges hear evidence, give opinions, and determine sentencing. All matters in which a Magisterial District Court judge has authority over are subject to appeal to the Court of Common Pleas once concluded. Magisterial district court judges hear and make decisions on cases involving:
- Small claims civil disputes;
- Landlord-tenant cases that do not exceed $12,000;
- Traffic citations and violations;
- Summary cases such as code violations, violations of city, borough, and township ordinances, and violations of the fish, game, and dog laws;
- Preliminary criminal hearings;
- Minor criminal matters such as misdemeanor cases.
The state has organized the Magisterial District Courts into districts. These districts typically encapsulate a single Pennsylvania county, but the light population in some counties results in seven districts covering two counties. With 67 counties in the state, there are 60 judicial districts. There are 546 total magisterial judges in the state, with some counties having more than others.
Competitive partisan elections typically appoint Magisterial District judges. Partisan elections mean that the candidates commit to a political party that aligns with their views. Parties who win the election are selected to serve on the bench for an initial term of six years. Most of the time, judges who opt to continue operating after six years are allowed to run in retention elections conducted by the court. In retention elections, court officials place a yes or no vote for the judge to continue service. This process is not the same for Magistrate District judges. After the six-year term, Magisterial District Judges must retire.
Parties do not need to be a member of the bar to qualify to become a District Judge, although legal training and attending legal education programs are required. To run for district judge, individuals must be:
- 21 years old
- A resident of Pennsylvania
- A resident of the district for at least one year before the election
- Certified by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts as having successfully completed a rigorous training and education program administered by the Minor Judiciary Education Board
It is also possible for parties to qualify and opt-out of the educational programs if the individual is a member of the bar. If not a member of the bar, judges must complete regular courses and thirty-two hours of education each year after the election.
The age limit for Magisterial District judges is 75 like all other courts. If a sitting judge turns 75 years old before the six-year term is over, the court may ask the party to retire. It is also possible for a judge to be found guilty of judicial misconduct by the court of judicial discipline. This court serves the purpose of holding judges accountable for misconduct by filing charges and removing the individual if found guilty. The house of representatives can also remove a judge with probable cause.
The Pennsylvania Judicial System website offers individuals a portal to easily view court dockets for all Magisterial District Court cases. Parties can use the portal to search for, view, handprint out information on court docket sheets, including all documents filed or created as a result of the case and all actions and decisions made by the court. The Magisterial District Court office also offers case files and records for viewing. The office recommends filling out a request form for a quicker search.
The duration of Magisterial District Court cases varies significantly depending on case type. Typically, civil trial dates take longer to set, but civil cases can take a few hours to months. Criminal trials are often set quicker, but some trials may take months to conclude.