The June 3rd, 2009 issue of the Pittsburgh City Paper contains an excellent article entitled "Bench Strength" by Chris Young. The article examines one of the leftovers of Pennsylvania's English past namely the local magisterial (or district judge) system. As many citizens may (or may not) be surprised to hear, all you need to become a judge in this state is enough votes and completion of a training course.
I've stood in front of a couple of these stooges over the course of my life, not for anything major but for annoying inconveniences such as parking tickets, speeding and once in handcuffs (charges dropped later, but that's another story.) If you've ever paid a fine in one of these offices and taken the time to look at your receipt, you will see a long list of beneficiaries making money off of your transgressions. Therein lies the answer to why this system exists- to make money. Any political hack, regardless of legal training or lack thereof, can aspire to this well paid position ($ 75,000.00 plus) and enjoy all the benefits of wearing the black robes and being called "judge."
Working hand in hand with the magistrate system is another anachronism which should be put to rest- the constable system. These soldiers of misfortune work for the magistrate system serving warrants and bringing the accused before their magisterial masters. Like their legal counterparts, these individuals are not the most highly trained or intelligent fellows but they too like the perks of wearing a uniform, having cool flashing lights on their cars and the legal right to carry a weapon in the course of their duties. If you ever see a fat, disheveled and armed man in a wrinkled uniform, it's a fair bet it's your local constable.
I once received a parking ticket in Washington County. I didn't pay it. They wanted $ 5.00 for being 10 minutes late on a 0.25 meter. Sometime later I received a notice of a bench warrant. A local constable mailed me a badly spelled letter that looked like it had been copied twenty or thirty times over at the local gas station. It stated that "time had run out" and I was facing imminent arrest. I even found his business card taped to my garage door. Wishing to avoid a Ruby Ridge type scenario over a $ 5.00 ticket, I caved into the Man and paid $ 60.00 to take my name off of America's most wanted.
On another adventure to magistrate land, I found myself in the office of another one in Westmoreland County. I noticed that there was a helpful sign in the office that promised discounts at the local hot dog shop to local law enforcement (the magistrate also owned the hot dog establishment.) Seeing that my fate could be decided by a discounted hot dog and fries, I plead guilty and took my lumps. Incidentally, I had eaten at the hot dog shop some time earlier. It sucked. I mean, how hard is it to make a good hot dog ? Especially if your primary business is selling hot dogs ? Anyways, I digress.
The state should not be able to sub out its functions to district judges, constables, for profit companies which collect local taxes, privately owned prisons or any other entity without direct civilian oversight (such as police review boards.) This entire sorry system should be scrapped. Barring that, district judges should be lawyers in the hope that they at least didn't sleep through some ethics training and their constable counterparts should be held to a higher training standard as well. Maybe we can start with how to wear a uniform properly.
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