History of the Special Court Judges Association of Pennsylvania

In 1968, a new Constitution was adopted in Pennsylvania. This Constitution established new courts, the Magisterial District Courts, as part of the Unified Judicial System. The legislative action that setup and implemented the establishment of these new courts provided for modernization and accountability for the minor judiciary. These courts became a reality in 1970.

For many years prior to 1970, there had been a Magistrates Association. This Association provided fellowship, education and a common cause to the justices of the peace, aldermen and magistrates. Those persons who were elected in 1969 to take the newly created position of district justice of the peace, soon formed the District Justice of the Peace Association of Pennsylvania. In June of 1973, the two associations merged and united as the Pennsylvania Association of Courts of Initial Jurisdiction.

On April 15, 1977, the Association’s Board voted to change the name of the Association to the Special Court Judges Association of Pennsylvania (SCJAP). This change of the corporate name would give the Association better exposure, reflect the diverse membership and would hopefully reflect that the judges would no longer be referred to as the ‘minor judiciary” but the Special Court Judges of the Unified Judicial System. “Special Courts referred to the courts of limited jurisdiction as opposed to courts of general jurisdiction. The membership at this time consisted of the district justices in the Commonwealth, Judges of the Philadelphia Municipal Court and the Philadelphia Traffic Court Judges.

On June 24, 1978, the SCJAP adopted Bylaw amendments which formed the foundation of the Association. The purpose as stated in the Bylaws was as follows:

“The purpose of the organization is to foster, promote and advance, without being involved in partisan politics of any kind, the study and application of the laws pertaining to, administered by and affecting Special Court Judges, the proper observance of judicial ethics and moral obligations by and among such officers and members, the dissemination of legal and other information for the better performance of the duties of such offices and for social purposes as provided in the non-profit corporation.”

Membership consisted of District Justices who were elected or appointed on or after November 4,1969, Municipal Court Judges and Traffic Court Judges. Eligibility as a member continued as long as the individual held office or retained retired status.

The purpose or object of the SCJAP remains the same today as it was in 1978. In 2004, the name “District Justice” was replaced legislatively by the name “Magisterial District Judge” in all statutes and rules of court. The current membership of the SCJAP is composed on Magisterial District Judges, Senior Magisterial District Judges, Municipal Court Judges of Philadelphia and Senior Municipal Court Judges. Retired Magisterial District Judges, Retired Philadelphia Municipal Court Judges and any Special Court Judges who have gone on to a higher court or other elected office, including federal positions are known as associate members.

The SCJAP has worked diligently to foster, promote and advance the position of Special Court Judge. The Association has worked with many of the Chief Justices and Associate Justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court; many Pennsylvania Court Administrators and the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts; and with many of the leaders and members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly on many issues to assist and advance the positions of the Special Court Judges. Over the years, these issues have included salary, healthcare benefits, retirement issues, continuing education, rules of court, redistricting and re-establishment of magisterial district courts, election issues, constitutional amendments for increasing the mandatory retirement age for all judicial officers and retention elections, and many legislative issues affecting judges and matters pertaining to the performance of judicial duties. In 1980, the SCJAP secured membership in the Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union for the Special Court Judges.

Some other issues that the SCJAP has focused on over the years are:

  • Participated in the modernization of the magisterial district courts with the development and implementation of the statewide computer system in 1992 and in the subsequent development of the Magisterial District Judges System. The Association has continued to work with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts on issues that arise within the system;
  • Issues involved in consolidated, regional or centralized courts;
  • Development of Benchbooks for Magisterial District Judges
  • Contempt powers for Special Court Judges was first discussed in the early 1970s, then again in 1989 and was finally accomplished in 1994;
  • Worked with the Constables Association of PA and the Legislature on modernization of statutes regarding constables and with the Supreme Court in adopting Rules of Judicial Administration concerning constables;
  • Continually reaching out to other groups, associations and organizations that have a stake in the operation of magisterial district courts;
  • In 1995, accomplished the goal of equalizing pay for all district justices and secured a cost of living allowance for salaries;
  • In 2000, the Association launched a website for its members;
  • In 2001, the SCJAP participated in the PA Supreme Court’s Intergovernmental Task Force to Study the District Justice System;
  • In the area of truancy, the SCJAP took the lead with the formation of a Truancy Task Force, which was basis for the formation of the PA Supreme Court’s Truancy Work Group. As result, the Legislature moved to make changes to the Public School Code regarding school attendance and the procedures in processing truancy cases in magisterial district courts by Act 138 of 2016;
  • In 2018, the SCJAP was successful in having legislation enacted that permitted incumbent magisterial district judges to file a Certificate of Nomination rather than nominating petitions in order to have the judge’s name appear on the ballot in the primary election without filing nomination petitions for safety reasons.
  • In 2018 there were several security incidents that occurred in magisterial district courts. The SCJAP created a Security Committee and also participated in the AOPC MDJ Security Task Group. The objective of the Task Group was to review and analyze the security in magisterial district courts. In 2020, the Group presented its recommendations to the Supreme Court and AOPC. The recommendations were also shared with the Legislature. The focus of these recommendations was how to better make the district courts a safer place for the public, all users of the courts, the court staff and the judges.
  • The year 2020 gave the Covid-19 pandemic. The SCJAP was affected and forced to meet virtually and had to postpone the 2020 annual Conference. During the pandemic, the Association still continued to operate and carry out its duties. The Association acted as a source of information on many of the aspects of the pandemic that affected court operations.
  • In 2021, the SCJAP launched a new website with various information about the SCJAP and the minor judiciary accessible to the public. The website contained a “judge locator” function for the public. A member’s only section conatins various resources and information for its members. In late 2021, the SCJAP website was expanded to create an Ethics & Professionalism page where members would access to look up prior opinions or squibs for reference.
  • In November 2022, the Supreme Court issued a new Pa.R.Crim.P. No. 131 which addressed the SCJAP’s concerns and required an approval process by Supreme Court for central courts. In 2020, the SCJAP began the process to rewrite a suggested Pa.R.Crim.P. No. 131 concerning the implementation of Central Courts and submitted it to the Court.

The Journal is the official monthly publication of the SCJAP. It was first published in October,1975 and has continued to be published monthly by the SCJAP ever since. The Journal provides updates on legislation, court rules and case law for the SCJAP membership. There are also articles on judicial ethics, court security and information that would assist the members in the performance of their judicial duties. There are also Highlights of members and matters of interest to the membership.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court acknowledged that the SCJAP as the association that is most representative of the Commonwealth’s District Justices and other Special Court Judges on July 2, 1980. Then 40 years later, on November 16, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court again identified the Special Court Judges Association of Pennsylvania as the association most representative of the Magisterial District Judges of the Commonwealth and on most issues the Judges of the Philadelphia Municipal Court.

In the 50 years of the existence of the SCJAP, there have goals that have been achieved and successes in various areas and there have also been goals that have not been achieved. The one common denominator was the effort, persistence, diligence and hard work of the officers and members of the Association. The SCJAP has maintained its focus and worked at building relationships with the other branches of government and those groups who work within the Unified Judicial System and the courts.