Pennsylvania’s House (again) considers impeaching Court of Common Pleas Judge Willis W. Berry, Jr.

I noted last year a push in the Pennsylvania House to impeach Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas Judge Willis W. Berry, Jr.

Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas Judge Willis W. Berry, Jr.  has served in that office in 1996 and had, prior too taking office, purchased over a dozen properties in Philadelphia. The properties were in poor condition and the judge was cited over 70 times. According to the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline, Judge Berry made use of his office and judicial secretary for a decade to “assist him in the day-to-day operations concerning his properties.” The Court of Judicial Discipline suspended him for four months without pay and he was encouraged to resign by the Philadelphia Bar. Instead, Berry returned to work on January 4 [2010].

HR 603 appoints a sub-committee of the House Judiciary Committee to investigate Judge Berry’s actions and determine whether they rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

HR 603 of 2010 never even reached the hearing stage. Many of the same sponsors have reintroduced the resolution again as HR 124 of 2011.

This latest resolution is currently pending before the House Judiciary Committee.

You can adjudicate my case, but you can’t buy a beer: Legislative efforts to increase minimum ages for judges

Over the last several years, I’ve examine numerous efforts to increase or eliminate the mandatory retirement ages for judges. I have, however, paid less attention to the other end: minimum ages. Interestingly, most appellate courts do not have a minimum age to serve, however they do have minimum years of bar admission and/or active practice which would presumably get the person past the age of 21.

Many state trial courts, however, have relatively low minimum age requirements. In some cases this is offset by bar admission requirements. For example, to serve as an Alabama Municipal Court Judge one need only be a “qualified elector” (i.e. 18), but the same provision requires they “be licensed to practice law in this state” (Code of Ala. § 12-14-30). This would presumably get a person to at least 21 years of age, although there are rare exceptions. Virginia Pearcy reportedly became the youngest attorney in the US in 1998 after graduating from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law at age 20.

21 is not always the magic number to serve as a judge, however. Arizona Justices of the Peace need only be 18 and  a qualified voter and resident; they do not have to be attorneys. Similarly, Connecticut Probate Judges appointed prior to 2011 need only be electors setting the minimum for that court as 18 as well (a 2010 law mandates new Probate Judges be attorneys).

In addition to Connecticut’s de facto increase in age requirement in 2010, Pennsylvania’s HB 917 of 2010 which would have increased the age threshold from 21 to 25 for magisterial judges only. Pennsylvania HB 998 of 2011 would raise the minimum age for all judges from 21 to 25.

Similarly, New York’s AB 10945 of 2010, reintroduced as AB 5674 of 2011, would increase the minimum age for service as a town or village justice from 18 to 25.

PA: Making it easier for private collection agencies to collect on debts owed to the court

Several judicial systems, at the state or local level, make use of private collection agencies to recover civil or criminal fees, fines, and costs owed the court. Pennsylvania is one such state and has, at least since 1996, a provision allowing for such private collection agencies to recover the debt owed in criminal cases (42 Pa.C.S. § 9730.1). However, the same 1996 act put limitations on collections:

(c) LIMITATIONS ON PRIVATE COLLECTION AGENCIES.– For the purposes of this section, a private collection agency shall cease its efforts designed to collect fines, costs and restitution and so inform the court or the county commissioners upon the occurrence of any of the following:
(1) the private collection agency considers the amount owing noncollectible;
(2) a period of 180 days has elapsed since referral of the amount owing to the private collection agency and there has been no response by the defendant or collection of moneys; or
(3) upon demand of a judge of the court of common pleas having jurisdiction over the defendant.

HB 61 of 2011, however would extend the 180 day period to 48 months, making it easier for the debts to be collected. That time expansion was approved earlier today by the House Judiciary Committee on a 23-0 vote.

Bills to increase penalties for filing false liens on judges, court personnel moving in AR and PA

Among the myriad of challenges facing judges and court staff beyond the threat of physical violence is the prospect of having liens and similar instruments filed on their homes. A federal law adopted in 2008 (and codified as 18 USC 1521) provides

Whoever files, attempts to file, or conspires to file, in any public record or in any private record which is generally available to the public, any false lien or encumbrance against the real or personal property of an individual described in [18 USCS § 1114], on account of the performance of official duties by that individual, knowing or having reason to know that such lien or encumbrance is false or contains any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.

In 2011, at least two states are looking at similar legislation.

Arkansas’  HB 1045 would make is a class C felony (punishable by 3 to 10 years in prison) to cloud or adversely affect the title or ownership of the property of a judge or other court personnel because of the performance of their official duties. That bill was approved by the House Committee on Judiciary 1/27/11 and adopted by the full House on 1/31/11.

A similar Pennsylvania bill (SB 50) would create the crime of “Simulated legal process” and includes within it “actions affecting title to real or personal property, indictments, subpoenas, warrants, injunctions, liens, orders, judgments or any legal documents or proceedings, knowing or having reason to know that the contents of the documents or proceedings or basis for the action to be fraudulent”. In addition SB 50 creates a separate crime (“Hindering public official”) when a person attempts “to influence, intimidate or hinder a public official or law enforcement officer in the discharge of his official duties by threat of or actual physical violence, harassment, through simulated legal process or by other unlawful act.” Both would be second degree misdemeanors punishable by up to two years imprisonment. SB 50 would also make specific crimes of tactics often used by “common law court” and militia/patriot groups such as “impersonating public official or legal tribunal” and use of unofficial license plates. SB 50 was introduced on January 12 and is currently pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

PA: Problem solving courts clear House

Pennsylvania’s courts, like those in many other states, have included the use of problem solving courts or problem solving dockets in the past. However, SB 383 could set Pennsylvania apart in terms of the number and types of such courts available.  The bill allows each court to create any type of problem solving court, including but not limited to drug courts, mental health courts, and DUI courts. The Supreme Court is also permitted to appoint a statewide problem solving courts coordinator and an advisory committee to assist the coordinator. The bill was approved by a unanimous House on March 23 and returns to the Senate for its concurrence in a House amendment that lays out specific provisions with respect to drug courts along with a special surcharge to help pay for drug courts only.

Pennsylvania’s House considers impeaching Court of Common Pleas Judge Willis W. Berry, Jr.

Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas Judge Willis W. Berry, Jr.  has served in that office in 1996 and had, prior too taking office, purchased over a dozen properties in Philadelphia. The properties were in poor condition and the judge cited over 70 times. According to the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline, Judge Berry made use of his office and judicial secretary for a decade to “assist him in the day-to-day operations concerning his properties.” The Court of Judicial Discipline suspended him for four months without pay and he was encouraged to resign by the Philadelphia Bar. Instead, Berry returned to work on January 4.

HR 603 appoints a sub-committee of the House Judiciary Committee to investigate Judge Berry’s actions and determine whether they rise to the level of an impeachable offense.