Maynard A. Hamilton, a Lancaster County MDJ, punched an off-duty police officer at a golf outing. He was suspended in 2007.
Ex-District Justice Ronald Amati from Pittsburgh served time in prison after he was caught operating an illegal casino out of a coffee shop. He was removed from office in 2004.
In 2013, nearly the entire Philadelphia Traffic Court bench was brought up on federal fraud charges related to ticket-fixing. The court was abolished by the state legislature and the judges were hit with a series of ethics penalties.
Some behavior by members of the minor judiciary was outright bizarre. Judge Isaac Stoltzfus from Intercourse handed out acorns stuffed with condoms to passersby outside of a state building. The JCB filed charges but he was ultimately cleared.
Judges of the minor judiciary were the targets of 57 of 85 disciplinary actions taken by the JCB since its founding. Half of those 57 were removed from the bench while others were given suspensions, all based on the severity of their offenses.
Pennsylvania has a total of 981 judges spread across 67 counties. Of that number, 472 belong to the minor judiciary. The JCB’s chief counsel, Robert Graci, said the sheer number of MDJs could be a factor in the volume of misconduct coming from the minor judiciary, but he declined to point to any one factor as driving the trend.
What separates MDJs from the other 509 judges is that they are not required to have law degrees or any type of higher education other than four weeks of judicial training before starting the job.
Legal experts point to that as the primary reason for the high volume of misconduct coming out of the state’s minor judiciary, explaining that many of these judges lack the ethics knowledge that typically comes with a legal education.
Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law, said not requiring magisterial district judges to be lawyers has populist origins.
“It was part of the ‘people’s court’ thing,” he said, adding that the judges were supposed to be a reflection of their communities.
Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said the office does not comment on why law degrees are not required for MDJs. He also did not directly comment on the high number of disciplinary actions targeting the minor judiciary.
“The state has an extensive disciplinary system—endorsed by its citizens through constitutional amendment—to address improper conduct by lawyers and judges both in and outside the courtroom,” he said.
However, Samuel Bufford, a retired California federal judge and former law lecturer at Penn State University, said not requiring MDJs to have a law degree means the state can pay them less than other judges.
He added that he believes lawyers could represent their communities as MDJs just as well as anyone else.
“I don’t think other people have any stronger ties than they do,” Bufford said. “And if there are any better ties, they are far outweighed by the judicial decisions produced by having legal training.”
Meanwhile, Maida Milone, executive director of the judicial reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said detachment from the community is a good thing for judges, as MDJs are more likely to be chummy with the people appearing before them—especially constituents, since judges in Pennsylvania are elected—increasing the risk for decisions based on favoritism and other ethical missteps.
“They remain vulnerable to political pressure and pleasing individuals they’re going to have to look to on re-election bids,” she said.
Ledewitz echoed Milone’s point and added that MDJs are susceptible to friendly influences.
“If you’re a landlord who has many cases with a magistrate over many years, think of the temptations,” Ledewitz said. “First you start being friendly, then it moves on to Christmas gifts and more.”
MDJs are also allowed to have other jobs outside of chambers. Milone said the constant changing in and out of the robes can also present difficulties that a full-time judge doesn’t have to deal with.
“When you are working as a judge [full-time] and everything that you do must conform to the rules of judicial conduct, I think they become second nature to you … on and off the bench.” Milone said. “When you’re moving between being on the bench and off the bench between other jobs that don’t conform your conduct, I think it’s easier to slip.”
Legal experts cite the need to ramp up continuing ethics education for judges. But it remains to be seen whether additional layers of training can remedy behavior that judges arguably should know to avoid through common sense, like in the case of Monroe County MDJ Michael R. Muth, who was hit with disciplinary charges in July for watching pornography in full view of his staff on multiple occasions.
“There are just some basics that you expect people to understand and a standard of behavior you’d expect people to have,” Milone said. “But there’s probably some combination of screening candidates, educating people and peer pressure—meaning being surrounded by other colleagues who reinforce the behavioral norm”—that would help.
While MDJs make up the majority of judges disciplined for ethics and sometimes criminal violations, their misconduct is often overshadowed by more conspicuous scandals involving the state’s higher courts.
“Kids-for-cash,” arguably one of the most notorious judicial crimes in U.S. history, happened in Luzerne County. Common Pleas Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan were sentenced to federal prison in 2011 for accepting $2.8 million in kickbacks to send thousands of juveniles to a privately owned prison.
In 2013, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin of Pittsburgh was charged and convicted of using employees on the state payroll to do campaign work
Most recently, the “Porngate” scandal, involving state officials sending pornographic and offensive emails to each other, ended the careers of two more justices: J. Michael Eakin and Seamus P. McCaffery, who stepped down amid the scandal.
“Porngate” was used as a cautionary tale to teach incoming MDJs not to use their computers for anything inappropriate, according to Susan Davis, the executive director of the state’s Minor Judiciary Education Board, interviewed last month after Muth—the Monroe county MDJ accused of looking at porn on the job—was charged by the JCB.
“We try to instill in the judges that they’ve got to frame their behavior so that it creates confidence in the judiciary, and to be mindful that perception is everything,” she said.
Asked whether the judicial education system needs improvement in keeping the state’s magisterial district judges in line, Davis said there isn’t much more that can be done to enhance the training MDJs receive.