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Judges enjoy short days, light workloads, investigation finds

The Investigator

December 10, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

Investigating district judges, campaigns and super PACs, an abrupt retirement, shortchanged school districts, and death by incarceration.

Despite earning more than $93,000 a year plus the possibility of a pension and lifetime health benefits — mostly paid by taxpayers — some of Pennsylvania’s elected magisterial district judges enjoy short days and light workloads, a yearlong investigation by Spotlight PA and PennLive found.

Spotlight PA newsroom developer Daniel Simmons-Ritchie and PennLive reporter Christine Vendel found huge variations in how many days each judge had court proceedings. Ten percent of 466 district judges examined had at least 60 days without scheduled court appearances on their calendars in 2019, above and beyond holidays, weekends, and training days.

Even when district judges had scheduled proceedings, they weren’t always logging eight hours in the courtroom. Some, particularly in rural areas, only heard a handful of matters, while others stacked their schedules in the morning, and their courtrooms frequently went dark after 1 p.m.

District judges, attorneys, county clerks, academics, and other sources who spoke to Spotlight PA and PennLive said problems with judicial scheduling and workloads at the magisterial district level have been an open secret for years, but that it was taboo to criticize judges or file complaints, citing fear of retaliation.

Documenting this story involved extensive data analysis and reporting to penetrate the veil of secrecy surrounding the court system, as Simmons-Ritchie and Vendel detailed. If you value in-depth reporting and partnerships between Pennsylvania newsrooms, please consider becoming a member. 

If you donate $15/ month or $180/year or more, you'll receive a sweet Spotlight PA tote bag hand-designed by a Pennsylvania artist and printed by a Pennsylvania small business. Don't wait!

Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA


"I’m not a campaign attorney, but I follow what mine tell me to do."

— Ray Zaborney, whose firm, Red Maverick Media, worked on both a state senator's campaign and for a super PAC on an ad to attack the lawmaker's opponent. Coordination between campaigns and those political groups is forbidden, but Zaborney said a "firewall" prevented any wrongdoing.

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, and sign up for alerts for your county.

» The 2020 election cost Pa. counties millions in OT

» Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf tests positive for the coronavirus

» VIDEO: A reader Q&A on Pa.’s coronavirus surge and coming vaccine

» Firm ran senator’s campaign, worked with PAC to attack opponent

» GOP leaders ask Congress to reject Pa.’s electors for Joe Biden

» Pa. hospitals on the brink of a staffing crisis as COVID-19 surges

A Q&A with Votebeat: Covering the 2020 election

In October, Spotlight PA partnered with the pop-up newsroom Votebeat to bring Pennsylvanians the election news they (actually) need. Since then, our reporters — Marie Albiges and Tom Lisi — have ignored the noise and focused on the most pressing issues of the day, including flaws with Pennsylvania’s updated election law and issues with poll worker training. Get to know more about them and their work below. — Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA

Agreeing to cover the 2020 election was a big commitment. Why did you sign on?

I wanted to explain how Pennsylvania would successfully vote — not focus on the horse races or the politics, but the process of voting in our state. 

Tom: It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime chance to cover a once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) moment in history, and focus on stories that treated it that way.

What have you learned that surprised you the most?

How decentralized election administration is! There are 67 counties, each with their own election department.

Tom: There is no degree or formal training for running elections in Pennsylvania, and that expertise lies in a small group of county employees.

What’s the No. 1 lesson other reporters should take away as they prepare to cover 2021 and beyond? 

Verify claims, and pay attention to who is spreading them. 

Tom: With a new election system put in place this year under unusual conditions, it was so important to stay in contact with volunteers, organizers, and local officials who saw every day what happened when the rubber met the road.

» THIS SEASON, SUPPORT LOCAL JOURNALISM: If you're a loyal reader of The Investigator, you probably agree — it's hard to imagine Pennsylvania without Spotlight PA. Show your support and become a member today. Contributions in any amount will help power our work into 2021.

AND! For a limited time, if you give $15/month or $180/year, we'll throw in our exclusive Pennsylvania tote bag. There are only 19 left! Claim yours now.
ABRUPT RETIREMENT: The state’s top military affairs official abruptly retired this week amid investigations into dozens of coronavirus deaths at a state-run veterans home and sexual harassment and retaliation at a National Guard station, The Philidelphia Inquirer reports. The Wolf administration did not explain the reason for Maj. Gen. Anthony Carreli’s departure.

NO EASY SHIFT: Amid a national push to replace police with social workers when responding to behavioral crises, resolve Crisis Services in Allegheny County hopes to be a part of the solution. However, a two-month investigation by PublicSource found issues with the group’s response times and a lack of referrals from officers.

SHORTCHANGED: Pennsylvania’s enrollment-based distribution of pandemic stimulus funds shortchanged poor schools, a new report shows. According to The Tribune-Democrat, the state’s distribution plan did not take wealth or poverty into account even though poorer school districts had more trouble adjusting to remote learning due to lack of effective equipment.

MISDIRECTED: Three organizations that manage more than 900 nursing and personal care homes in Pennsylvania have sued the state’s Department of Human Services for allegedly misdirecting stimulus funds. According to PennLive, the lawsuit claims the department used $153 million to plug budget holes, an allegation the agency denies.

'DEATH BY INCARCERATION': Pennsylvania has the second-highest number of people serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, or as some advocates call it, death by incarceration. The Appeal spoke to nine people who received that kind of sentence but were later released about the challenges they face.

» AP: Some Dems want maskless House GOP lawmakers sworn in last

» THE CAUCUS: Legislators tuck special projects into Pa. budget

» MERCURY: New Hanover police to improve hiring after racism probe

» MORNING CALL: State drug crisis gets worse during pandemic

» PENNLIVE: Questions about civilian police unit at Harrisburg hearing

Yaasmeen Piper of Spotlight PA

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

SPELLING BEE (Case No. 70): "A railroad worker fixed the railroad crossing." Can you spell that without any 'R's?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: The sentence has every letter of the alphabet.
Congrats to Keith F., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Michele M., George S., Josephine D., Lance L., Michael H., Lou R., Karen S., George S., Burnetta S., Kevin M., Kathy M., Joseph S., Jaymes D., Mary S., Lynda G., John D., Dennis P., Joseph A., Ira B., Philip C., Annette I., Pam C., Kenneth J., William D., Lucy B., John R., Roseanne D., Maggie E., Norman S.A., Beverly M., Jonathan N., Mary B., Eileen D., Judy A., Thomas D., and Alice O.
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