Mid-election is no time to close Bucks courts

When is it OK to discard ballots properly cast in a local election? In Pennsylvania, a judge can do it with no public comment period and no appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Bucks County President Judge Jeffrey L. Finley has asked the state Supreme Court to close district courts in Perkasie and Lower Southampton, even though primary elections there for new judges in these courts are well underway.

As reasons for the closure, Finley's office cites a countywide drop in caseloads and the likelihood that the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) will recommend magisterial court closures after the 2020 census.

The timing of this move means that voters could select candidates in the May 16 primary for judicial positions that may not exist by June. The two courts are in Lower Southampton, where five candidates are seeking the seat, and Perkasie, which has four candidates for the office.

Every 10 years, AOPC asks each county to redraw its judicial district boundaries, based on public comments and "weighted criteria." In 2013, the state Supreme Court approved Bucks County's AOPC plan, which contained no court closings.

But under a 2010 directive from then-Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, counties were asked to reduce district judgeships to meet budget guidelines. They could do it under the AOPC process, or wait for judges to not run again or vacate their seats. In Lower Southampton, the judge has been suspended; the incumbent in Perkasie is not seeking reelection. Under Castille's directive, a county president judge isn't required to ask for public comment or provide evidence beyond the existence of vacancies.

Not all counties use the Bucks County approach. Last year, Lancaster County President Judge Dennis Reinaker announced plans to close a district court. After attending a public forum on the closure, he changed his plan to focus on districts with lighter caseloads.

In Bucks County, an earlier filing on proposed court closures would have protected voters' right to cast ballots that count. But the lack of a public comment process is equally chilling. Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." I hope the Bucks County Court will let the people have a say in this matter before it is too late.