The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has derailed pending plans to create a new central court that would hear all cases of driving under the influence in the county at its Doylestown Justice Center.
In a recent order, the state’s highest court clarified that districts wishing to create new specialized minor judiciary courts must first obtain its approval.
The order advises Pennsylvania presidential judges that they do not have the power to create permanent district courts, which are typically the first point of contact for defendants as their criminal cases move through the justice system.
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Bucks County Court Administrator Stephen Heckman confirmed that Bucks County President Judge Wallace Bateman Jr., who proposed the DUI court concept, is in the process of reviewing the order to “determine our next step.”
Earlier this year, Heckman confirmed that Bateman is proceeding with a plan to move preliminary hearings for DUI cases from local county courts to a central court in Doylestown. The proposed new court would be overseen by district judges with lower-case loads.
Local district judges opposed the concept, claiming that the central court concept disenfranchises citizens who expect district judges to preside over cases in their communities and creates difficulties for police and defendants in the lower end of the district, where most DUI arrests occur.
A state organization representing judicial district judges also last year sought clarification from the state Supreme Court as to which body has the authority to set up central courts and under what circumstances.
According to the Special Courts Judges Association of Pennsylvania, there is no legal precedent for a judge to preside over cases outside of his jurisdiction, except for a specific temporary circumstance.
The Pennsylvania Constitution gives the Pennsylvania Supreme Court the power to close or amalgamate district courts. Only the state legislature has the power to create additional courts or divisions within existing courts.
District President judges have the power to establish “temporary” court assignments in the smaller justice system due to illness, furlough, case consolidation, or denial.
But presidential judges in nearly half of the state’s 67 counties have used that power to issue orders establishing specialized central district courts to handle cases such as DUI cases, domestic violence cases and incarcerated defendants, according to the Administrative Bureau of the Pennsylvania Courts, who oversee state judiciary.
According to Kim Bathgate, an AOPC spokeswoman, the Supreme Court order does not overturn existing district orders to move trials to a central court.
Under the new procedures, counties wanting to set up a central court must file a petition with the AOPC, which reviews it and makes a recommendation before referring it to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for consideration.
Petitions must include written notice of the proposed change to the district magistrate judges, and the district judges may issue a written statement of support or disapproval.
Every community and police department affected by the proposal must be notified. It also requires public notice of the change and the ability to submit written comments.
The application must also include a statement setting out what local conditions will require the establishment of a central court and how it will improve the judicial district court system, what the public accessibility impact of the relocated court will be, and the tax implications of the proposal for the district Has. Municipalities, police departments and other interest groups.
No central court proposal will be approved if it reduces the “equitable distribution” of cases among district judges, restricts public access to the court, or creates a situation where a “duly elected” district judge hears cases outside of the district in which he is seated or she was elected “regularly,” according to the order.
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