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District justice plan awaits high court's OK

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

By Mike Bucsko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The state Supreme Court has approved realignments of district justice courts in 52 of Pennsylvania's 60 judicial districts, but it's unlikely a decision on Allegheny County's controversial proposed realignment will come before next week.

In orders issued since Friday, the court has approved realignments in much of the state, including magisterial districts in Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Orders must be issued by Dec. 31 on seven remaining realignment proposals. Philadelphia County is not part of the realignment process because it does not have district justices.

Allegheny County submitted its first realignment plans in June, offering the high court two options that considered the retention or elimination of Pittsburgh Magistrates Court.

Two weeks ago, Common Pleas President Judge Robert Kelly submitted a third plan that recommends that Magistrates Court remain intact for two years so its operations could be monitored by a computerized tracking system. A decision would be made by late 2004 or early 2005 on whether to retain Magistrates Court.

The proposal recommends that Mayor Tom Murphy refrain from appointing any new magistrates as current terms expire while the study is under way. The elimination of Magistrates Court, composed of City, Housing and Traffic courts, is opposed by the seven mayor-appointed magistrates and some members of City Council.

Elimination of Magistrates Court would reduce the county's number of elected district justices from 55 to 48. If Magistrates Court is maintained, the number of district justices will be reduced to 44, half of which will be in the city of Pittsburgh.

The statewide realignment of district justice courts is done every 10 years in the same manner that state and federal legislative districts are redrawn to reflect population changes from the federal census.

Realignment plans in the counties that border Allegheny do not involve as much change as the plans proposed in Allegheny County.

Beaver County's realignment maintains the status quo of nine district justices in the same districts, said Aileen Bowers, deputy court administrator who oversees the county's district justice courts.

Washington and Westmoreland counties will each reduce by one their number of district justices, but in neither case will a sitting district justice lose her job.

Instead, the counties will lose the seats through attrition with the retirements a year from now of district justices Marjorie Teagarden of Canton Township and Martha Medich of North Huntingdon.

The reductions leave Washington County with 11 magisterial districts and Westmoreland County with 18. In both counties, the boundaries of some districts were adjusted.

Butler County adds two magisterial districts, bringing its total to seven. The county added 22,000 residents from 1990 to 2000, according to the census.

Mike Bucsko can be reached at mbucsko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1732.

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