Who are you to judge me? Lawyers and legal novices compete for the same magistrate court seats in Pennsylvania

Michael Thatcher is running in Magisterial District 05-02-16, headquartered in Pleasant Hills, and is the only non-lawyer in the six-person race for the vacant seat. (Photo by Nick Keppler/PublicSource)

Joe Palahunik and Bruce Boni both graduated from Sto-Rox High School in McKees Rocks in 1983.

Palahunik went on to study marketing at Slippery Rock University and form his own company, Joe’s Pros, headquartered in his hometown. It makes customized T-shirts and branded corporate giveaways, like towels, cups and calendars. One of his specialties is Little League uniforms, and Palahunik, a father of four, has coached for years.

Boni went on to Carnegie Mellon University, where he majored in psychology, and then to the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Since 1999, he has operated his own general practice law firm. “Whatever walks in the door, if I am competent to handle it, I do it,” Boni said. “I tell people I’m like a small-town country lawyer.”

Despite the divergent paths the two classmates took, they are contending for the same job. Both are candidates for magistrate judge for state district 05-03-06. The judgeship would entrust either man to make rulings regarding landlord-tenant disputes, monetary claims of less than $12,000, traffic and minor criminal offenses, and the beginning stages of criminal prosecutions. The winner will also earn $89,438 annually throughout their six-year term. Boni, an attorney, and Palahunik, a small business owner with no legal experience, are both eligible under the state Constitution.

One does not have to be a lawyer or have attended law school to be a minor court judge in Pennsylvania, a trait that makes the state unique. Many people who have never practiced law are presiding over district magistrate courts. Of the 45 magistrate judges serving in Allegheny County, only 12 have ever been admitted to the bar of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, a prerequisite to working as an attorney, according to online records. Among the 45 people running this month to be a district magistrate in 21 primary elections — 10 of them contested and 11 in which an incumbent is unopposed — only 20 candidates are lawyers.

Bruce Boni, a lawyer, is up against former Sto-Rox High School classmate Joe Palahunik, a non-lawyer, in a race for magistrate judge. (Photo by Nick Keppler/PublicSource)

Boni and Palahunik — who knew each other from high school but were not close — are also running against Ronald Kushner, a physical rehabilitation specialist who often consults with insurance companies, and Kelly Cropper-Hall, a preschool teacher, to replace a retiring judge.

“When you’re involved in small towns, you’re always being asked to run and get involved in things,” said Palahunik, who has served on the local zoning board and Democratic town committee. He added, “I like order in my life, order in the town, order in my business, order in my basement. I’ve always wanted to be an elected official and I think this would be a good fit.”

He said legal experience should not be a deciding factor for voters because many attorneys have specialties and they would be just as new to much of a district magistrate’s more generalized workload as a legal newcomer would be. “I think for this job, you need compassion and common sense,” Palahunik added.

Boni, a first-time candidate for elected office, disagrees. “Any judge needs to not just listen to the facts but apply law to whatever those facts are,” he said. Boni, who is also board president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, feels a judge who has never worked as an attorney would probably make more faulty decisions that are appealed to the Court of Common Pleas. “You shouldn’t have to go down the line to get the correct verdict,” he said. “That’s more time people have to put into [their cases], more time they have to take off from work.”

Kushner, another non-lawyer candidate in the race (and another Sto-Rox alum), said he has experience in the legal system as an expert in workers compensation cases and in a fight for custody of his daughter. “I think I can do the job,” he said. “A district magistrate is supposed to settle disputes. A lawyer might see things in black and white.”

The fourth candidate in this judge election, Cropper-Hall, did not respond to an email asking for an interview.

It’s rare in the United States that voters pick state judges who have never passed a bar exam or worked as attorneys.

In 20 states, state judges are not elected directly, but chosen by the governor, legislature, higher judges or governmental committee. In almost all of these states, the judges must be members of the state bar or licensed attorneys, with some states specifying how many years they must have practiced law. South Carolina only requires a two-year associate degree of some type, and Colorado makes exemptions to its lawyer qualification in low-population jurisdictions. Delaware has some low-level courts where appointees do not require law degrees.

In 30 states, voters choose the judges of their low-level courts in most jurisdictions. Comparisons between state judicial systems can be tricky. Some states parse out judicial responsibilities to low-level officials, like justices of the peace, and to specified courts, like juvenile or traffic court. Furthermore, some states give the power to pick some local judges to counties, towns and cities, which write their own rules about how judges are selected and what qualifications they must have.

However, in all but a few states, one must possess a law license; be a member of the bar association; and/or attain another professional benchmark of a trained attorney to hold a judgeship that is not within a specialized court or a court whose judges are chosen by county laws or some other entity smaller than a state.

Only six states — Arizona, Mississippi, Georgia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin — allow voters to choose judges for their lowest level, non-specified courts who do not have law backgrounds. Two states where local judges are elected — New Mexico and Washington — usually require a law license but waive the requirement in districts where the population does not meet a certain threshold.

The Pennsylvania Constitution requires a magisterial court judge to reside within their district for a year, be no younger than 21 and no older than 75 and, if not a state bar association member, pass a certification exam. (A candidate must be a bar member to be elected to the state’s higher courts, such as the Court of Common Pleas, which handles larger civil and almost all criminal matters, or the Commonwealth Court, which hears appeals.)

State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he thinks the state should also require district magistrate judges to hold a law degree. “District magistrates are part of Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System; they are making legal decisions, and it makes sense that they ought to have legal training,” wrote Aaron Zappia, Greenleaf’s communications director, in an email to PublicSource. “If such legislation is proposed, it should grandfather those currently serving who do not hold law degrees.” However, the new standard would require a change to the state Constitution, a “lengthy process” that Greenleaf is not yet committed to undertaking, Zappia wrote.

As of now, they only have to pass a certification exam. The month-long training for minor court judges to prepare them for the test is free and held periodically in Harrisburg. Some candidates take the course before running and some wait until they have won their election or a primary, but they must pass the exam before they can take office.

“It’s like three and a half years of law school condensed into a month,” said Palahunik, who took the course last summer. “If you have to weigh the [curriculum], crimes and landlord-tenant [disputes] get most of the weight. Vehicles get a lot of time, too.” The instructors were attorneys and retired and current judges, he recalled. They also taught ethics for public officials.

Palahunik went to class from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every weekday for a month. He said he delegated the operations of his business to others and kept track of it on nights and weekends. “There is a law for everything, I learned,” he recalled.

“The class wasn’t too hard,” he said, “but the test at the end was difficult.”

Art Heinz, communications coordinator for the Administrative Office for Pennsylvania Courts, said he could not provide a pass/fail rate.

With one month of training and a passing grade under his or her belt — or a promise to do that in future — district magistrate candidates without a law license use their other experience and community ties to make their case to voters.

Michael Thatcher is running in Magisterial District 05-02-16, headquartered in Pleasant Hills, and is the only non-lawyer in the six-person race for the vacant seat. Currently working in his family’s real estate business, Thatcher is a U.S. Marine officer and led infantry platoons during two tours of duty in Afghanistan. He said the skills he learned training young Marines are transferable to the courtroom.

“When I wake up in the morning, I feel a need to serve this community like I did on active duty,” he said. “I have background [in dealing with] discipline problems and a lot of hands-on leadership experience.”

Thatcher took the minor judiciary training course and doesn’t think a law degree is necessary for a magisterial judgeship: “What this office needs is someone from the community, who has the same values as them and is fair and reasonable.”

Jack Kobistek is finishing his second four-year term as mayor of Carnegie and he sees running for the vacant seat of Magisterial District 05-02-23 as a continuation of his work as mayor.

Jack Kobistek is mayor of Carnegie. As he wraps up his second four-year term as mayor of the borough, he is campaigning to become a district magistrate. Here, he is talking to constituents at Lifespan Chartiers Senior Center in Carnegie. (Photo by Nick Keppler/PublicSource)

“We’ve done a lot of good things in Carnegie,” he said. “A lot of those things we deal with end up in front a district judge, things like landlord-tenant and vacant properties, all issues that detract from the way of life in a community.” Kobistek said he is particularly interested in setting opioid users who end up in a low-level court on a better path, “because that’s been a systemic issue that contributes to a lot of crime.”

He specifically mentioned matching younger offenders to mentors or directing them to financial literacy and employment workshops.

Kobistek has master’s degrees in public policy and instructional leadership from Carnegie Mellon University and Robert Morris University, respectively, and he is facing a mix of lawyers and non-lawyers in his race. The mayor added, “I would ask: What lawyer has been in the front line every day?”

Non-lawyer Rasul Aquil is challenging incumbent Kim Hoots, who is also not an attorney, and Marc Taiani, an attorney, for Magisterial District 05-2-10 in Wilkinsburg. Aquil, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, spends most of his work hours as president of a veterans association, but he also has experience as an officer of the court: Aquil is a constable, an elected position for which he enforces state court decisions. He also has an associate’s degree in the administration of justice from the University of Pittsburgh.

Rasul Aquil has no experience as a lawyer, but he does serve as an elected constable. He is seeking the magistrate judgeship in Wilkinsburg, challenging the incumbent who is also not an attorney and another challenger who is an attorney. (Photo by Nick Keppler/PublicSource)

Aquil embraces the political aspect of the district magistrate job. “I will balance the scales of justice,” he said, “but being a judge is also a political position.” He points to vacant properties as a scourge in Wilkinsburg. As a judge, he said he would better enforce the codes related to them, directly applying constituent concerns to his performance as judge.

He also would work to re-establish a Boys & Girls Club in the neighborhood. That’s not a judge’s constitutional responsibility, “but if I am trying to organize that, a call from a judge is worth more. …There are additional responsibilities like that when you put on the cloak of a politician and ask people for their votes.” But he said he would be careful not to “commingle offices.”

“A district magistrate is not exactly sitting there going through case law,” Aquil said. “We just use common laws and common sense. I think that’s what a district magistrate judge is, a common judge for the common man.”

Nick Keppler is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer who has written for Mental Floss, Vice, Nerve and the Village Voice. Reach him at nickkeppler@yahoo.com.