It’s time to protect Pennsylvania’s courts and judges

My bill to ban firearms from magisterial district courts

The gun violence epidemic has gripped Pennsylvania for the last several years. Lives are lost every day because of it, and it’s occurring in places where we expect to be protected and for justice to be delivered.

Just yesterday, Monday, Dec. 2, an individual took his own life in front of a waiting room full of people inside of a district magistrate’s office. The person shot himself in the head in Lower Paxton Township, PA, in front of several district court staff members and civilians.

This was not an isolated incident. On Sept. 19, 2018, in Masontown, PA, four people were shot, including a police officer. The shooter? A disgruntled 61-year-old man whose wife had just filed a Protection from Abuse order against him. He was later shot by police during the standoff. The location of the shooting? A magisterial district court.

Although the person from this most recent incident in Lower Paxton Township did not threaten anyone else at the scene, why were either of these people permitted to bring a firearm into the building? It is crucial to understand our commonwealth’s judicial system and the obstacles it faces to better address this issue.

There are five levels of courts in Pennsylvania’s judicial system. Magisterial district courts are the lowest level of court in our state. Each county (except Philadelphia) has magisterial district courts. These courts can cover several municipalities or there can be several municipalities covered by one court, depending on the population of the county. Magisterial district courts deal with a wide range of issues and are often the first point of contact in the judicial system for most Pennsylvanians. These courts handled 2.4 million cases and collected $252 million in fines and costs in 2017.  Magisterial district courts handle landlord-tenant disputes, summary offenses, violations of municipal ordinances, and can issue emergency PFAs. Magisterial district courts also handle preliminary matters for misdemeanors and felonies.

This is where a major problem arises. Despite their importance, magisterial district courts are often an afterthought in our judicial system. They are underfunded and understaffed. The issues these courts deal with—domestic abuse, murder, other violent crimes—means the possibility of danger arising, like it did in Masontown, is high and ever-present. Lack of funding and staffing mean that magisterial district courts cannot adequately address the threat of violence. Even if they had the staff and money to do so, they still would not have the space. Magisterial district courts might be found in a strip mall, an office park, or shoved in the back of a municipal building. This lack of space means that victims and perpetrators may be sitting in the same waiting room, just feet from each other, increasing the threat of violence even more.

Magisterial district courts try to reduce the possibility of violence by having lockers for guns to prevent firearms in the courtroom. However, the lack of available space means that the gun lockers are usually right in the lobby along with everyone else. This has proven to be unsafe. In Lancaster County, a gun was accidentally discharged while a man was removing it from the lockers right in the waiting room.

Magisterial district court judges know that aspects of their courts are not safe. They want the state to take steps to make courts safer. The House Judiciary Committee, on which I serve, recently held a hearing with some judges about magisterial district court safety. A common theme that emerged from judges’ testimony is the high possibility of danger arising in their courts and the need for the state to step in and do something. That’s why I’ve been working closely with magisterial district judge associations to draft a bill that fits their needs and ensures that they have a safe work environment.

I’ve introduced legislation that has gained bipartisan support from Pennsylvania judges that would ban the possession of firearms in magisterial court buildings. In fact, it is a measure that the judges who testified at our hearing asked to state to take. Simply having firearm lockers does not adequately protect our courts, and we must act. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue; the protection and functioning of our judicial system should be something we can all agree on. I urge my colleagues to sign onto this bill, which would prevent any more of these tragedies from occurring. The judges and other members of your community are depending on you.

We must allow justice to be served fairly in magisterial district courts without the threat of firearm-related danger. Contact your state representative today and tell them about this bill that supports ensuring the safety and security of Pennsylvania’s judicial system.