Lawrence County is redrawing its magisterial districts to eliminate the office of David Rishel.
The move is a pre-emptive strike by county officials to head off what could be even more severe cutbacks imposed by outside officials.
An estimated 60 to 65 district judges — about 10 percent across Pennsylvania — are expected to be eliminated over the next six to 10 years as the result of the state’s budgetary shortfall.
The process already has begun, according to Lawrence County President Judge Dominick Motto.
“Everyone’s looking for ways to save money,” he said. “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined the number of district judges can be reduced.”
To reduce the number of other judges, he said, would require legislative action.
“Some counties are using attrition, just not naming replacements or eliminating districts as terms expire, judges retire, or become incapacitated or die,” Motto said. He added that Gov. Tom Corbett has been asked not to fill judicial vacancies by appointments.
Motto said that he, court administrator Mike Occhibone and local district judges began working last fall on a plan to reduce the county’s judicial districts by one.
“We had hoped to retain all of our district judges,” Motto said. “We believed that under the guidelines, our numbers — the number of cases filed and the number of hearings held — would justify maintaining all five of our magisterial districts.”
However, even though the local magisterial district courts maintain an annual caseload of 3,577 filings, this is below the Fifth Class county average of 4,275 he said. Eliminating one office is expected to bump up the average caseload to 4,471 filings.
Lawrence is a Fifth Class County, a designation determined by population.
“We were told it is certain that we will lose one office — maybe two — based on the numbers.”
Motto said the county was advised to participate in the plan to determine which office will close.
“This would give us better control. If we made the recommendations ourself we would be more likely to get what we wanted. If we waited, the state would come in.”
Rishel’s office was targeted because he already has announced he will not seek another term and plans to retire.
At 63, Rishel is serving his fourth six-year term as district judge. He will be 68 when his term expires in 2017, but could leave office sooner.
Under the law, judges are required to retire at 70.
“With one judge gone, we are right on the numbers that the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts believes district court judges should have,” Motto said.
Every 10 years, Occhibone explained, the office reviews its redistricting evaluations.
“We were told we have to eliminate one office, and do it within the next six years,” he said. “But in no way do we want to do this.”
Occhibone said the committee that included him and the local judges considered various options, including terms of the current district judges, whose districts can be realigned, what can be eliminated and what was realistic.
Numbers played a big role, he said.
Although the office of Jennifer Nicholson had a high number of cases — 4,474 — most were traffic-related. Melissa Amodie, who covers New Castle, had the “most weighted” cases because her numbers stem from criminal cases.
When the decision was made to divide Rishel’s district among the remaining judges, “We determined to give (Scott) McGrath Shenango Township to build up his numbers. Shenango accounts for two-thirds of Rishel’s cases.”
McGrath also received Hickory Township in the realignment, “because districts must be continuous.”
Other options considered, Occhibone said, included dividing the county and the city of New Castle into quarters. That plan was rejected, he said, because of travel time that would be required of police departments.
He said several drafts went to Harrisburg for consideration before all agreed to the currently proposed redistricting.
Also figuring into the plan, he said, will be a centralized booking office, to be located in the new New Castle police department building at East and North streets.
NEW LINES DRAWN
Rishel’s district on the east side of Lawrence County will be divided between District Judges Jerry Cartwright and McGrath.
Cartwright, whose district covers the southern tier of the county, will pick up Slippery Rock Township.
But the lion’s share of Rishel’s former district will be inherited by McGrath, who will see his realm stretch from Pulaski to Plain Grove townships and dip to include Shenango Township. However, McGrath said, he does not expect to see a dramatic increase in his caseload.
McGrath’s district, which now includes Pulaski, Neshannock and Wilmington townships and Volant and New Wilmington boroughs, logs the lowest numbers of cases.
He will pick up Shenango, Hickory, Plain Grove, Scott and Washington townships and South New Castle Borough.
“The biggest change I expect will be to relocate my office to a more centralized location,” McGrath said of the anticipated realignment.
McGrath — now in a plaza at Route 18 and Mitchell Road — said he anticipates moving to Eastbrook or Harlansburg. His staff also is expected to grow to accommodate the workers displaced by the closing of Rishel’s office.
ENJOYS HIS WORK
Rishel, who thoroughly enjoys his role as judge, doesn’t want to go.
“I’m in no hurry,” he said. “I’m hoping if I hold out the state will reach its numbers and will leave us alone so we won’t have to close this office. But I’m told this won’t happen.”
A former police officer, Rishel took over after the retirement of Ruth E. French.
“This office has been here for 42 years,” he said. “It would be a shame to see it closed.”
Rishel said the local judges “have known this was coming. We did our best to avoid it.
“I enjoy the job and the people I work with in my office, Judge Motto and the other judges, the police officers, and in most cases even the defendants who the police bring in.”