Late last month, Bucks County President Judge Jeffrey Finley filed paperwork to dissolve the district court located in Perkasie during the middle of a primary election to select new judge candidates. The wisdom of that decision is debatable, but the importance of having a town judge in Perkasie isn’t.
In Pennsylvania, judges are elected to office and not appointed on their merits. That’s not unusual, since 39 states hold some election to select judges. This isn’t a bad thing. Our district judges always run for re-election in a partisan election, which makes them accountable to the local community.
This idea of accountability was important to people like Alexander Hamilton, who openly feared an earlier English judicial system where the king appointed his friends to the bench. “This independence of the judges is equally requisite to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals from the effects of those ill humors,” Hamilton said in 1788.
Our district judges hold much in common with their predecessors, the justices of the peace, who performed similar functions before their jobs were re-defined in 1969. These judges make sure important grassroots legal functions get done, and they are directly accountable to the people they serve.
In Hamilton’s time, Abraham Stout was the first justice of the peace in the Perkasie area, about 100 years before it became a borough. Stout was the most prominent Pennsylvania German of the age in Bucks County. He also voted to ratify our federal Constitution as a state delegate. But Stout’s most important job was making sure local property transactions were legitimate and local justice was maintained.
Henry G. Moyer was the first justice at the newly incorporated Perkasie in 1879. Henry and his brother, Joseph, founded much of the new borough. Henry was a state senator, and he started the first bank here that gave loans to people to buy houses in Perkasie. (Henry also owned the Perkasie Herald, the predecessor to this newspaper.)
In modern times, Perkasie has only had three district judges since 1970, when the new magisterial court law went into effect: Robert Hunsicker, Ruth Dietrich and Charles Baum. This remarkable continuity has helped our police, public servants and our taxpayers in many ways; someone well-known in our community has always made sure people were treated fairly in court.
Judge Finley’s decision takes that away from us. Taxpayers in Perkasie, Sellersville, East Rockhill, West Rockhill and Telford will pay more in taxes to compensate for extra police costs. Bucks County saves two salaries by not having to pay for District Judges in Perkasie and Lower Southampton, but it wants the state’s permission to add two Common Pleas judges in Doylestown instead — at twice the annual salary rate.
The biggest injustice here is that the timing of Judge Finley’s decision was too late to block the judge race candidates from appearing on the May primary ballot — and those votes will be thrown out right after the election. That is the “ill humor” Alexander Hamilton warned us about. It’s no laughing matter — at least not to the people of Perkasie and its neighbors.
Scott Bomboy is a member of Perkasie’s Borough Council, which unanimously opposes the move to close its district court.