I had a chance last week to interview Bret Binder, an East Bradford attorney who is running for the position of Magisterial District Judge in West Bradford, East Bradford, and West Chester wards 3, 6, and 7.
Why are you running for MDJ?
Too many people have lost faith in the Pennsylvania judiciary because of a series of scandals from the Magisterial District Courts up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Given that most people’s only experience with the law is in the Magisterial District Court, I would like to bring accountability, transparency, professionalism, and respect to this Court. I believe there is a chance to make a large impact in my community as well as to attempt to implement changes in the court itself that could help all Pennsylvanians receive a better, fairer judicial system.
What does an MDJ do?
A Magisterial District Judge handles small claims cases (under $12,000.00), landlord tenant cases, traffic citations, summary offenses, and emergency protection from abuse orders. He or she also issues arrest and search warrants and sets bail and rules on preliminary hearings for those charged with felonies and misdemeanor. These cases range from routine to quite serious and require a judge familiar with rules of procedure, evidence, and applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations.
Why should the average voter care who is their MDJ?
Most people’s only court experience will be at the Magisterial District Court level, for either themselves or friends and family. People want their judge to have a deep knowledge of the law as well as empathy born of experience in representing clients in court and knowing the issues that face people going into what is often one of the most important experiences of their life. Although people can appeal decisions from the Magisterial District Court, most cannot afford the time and money to do so, and the Magistrate District Judge’s decision usually winds up being the final say. It is important for the Magistrate Judge to show a commitment to community and fight for changes to benefit citizens.
What background do MDJ’s need?
Currently, MDJ’s need to either have a law degree or take a four-week course and pass an exam. Recent cases like the Penn State hazing scandal, in which manslaughter charges were dismissed by a magistrate judge, highlight some of the important decisions that MDJ’s must make and the importance of having had the benefit of a full law school education and experience of practicing as an attorney. However, that background and experience is just as important for issuing a protection from abuse order, setting bail, and ruling on whether somebody is owed money or can stay in their home.
Why do you think your background is the better one in this race?
I do not fault the background of my opponent but believe our system is outdated in allowing non-attorney judges. I simply do not believe that an individual should rule on whether a felony case proceeds, decide a case involving somebody’s life savings, set bail, or any of the other important MDJ functions without the benefit of a law school education and having represented individuals and businesses in court.
I have been lucky to attend Villanova Law School on a partial scholarship, to clerk for the Pennsylvania Superior Court and Supreme Court, to run my own law firm for a decade representing a wide range of businesses and individuals, and to donate a significant amount of time in free legal work. In addition, I have been fortunate to be able to serve on the West Chester School Board, the Board of the Chester County OIC, and other local non-profits — giving me an insight into the variety of people that make up this district and their needs.
What did you learn from clerking for the PA Supreme Court?
My experience clerking for the PA Supreme Court may have been the most enjoyable of my career. Getting the chance to deliberate with the judges and discuss decisions that would affect the lives of Pennsylvanians was both weighty and exhilarating. At that level, you see the effects of lower court’s decisions in ways intended and not, the problems with poorly worded laws, and the need to approach every case thoroughly and with respect.
Actually, why isn’t a legal background required? Is that some historical fluke?
The role of this court has changed over the years, as have some of the practices. In Philadelphia, the judges used to keep a portion of the traffic fines! As this court has taken on more and more of an important role in the community, it is important that we keep up with the times by requiring that our judges all have thorough legal training, have graduated from law school, and have passed the PA bar exam.
We’ve all seen a lot of campaign signs around the area, especially for your race and West Chester Mayor; do you think signs are useful?
Signs are useful as a way of building name recognition; however, they don’t tell a message about the candidate. A voter can’t determine the educational or professional backgrounds of the candidate from a sign, but you can hope that voters are encouraged to seek out more information when they know the name of the candidate. They always say that signs don’t vote, so I do not believe that many signs are necessary — just enough to remind people who the candidates are.
We’ve all heard that elected office-holders sometimes use their position to pressure residents into endorsing them or displaying their signs; is that possible?
We’ve seen that issue arise in elected politics too often; Rob McCord may be the most high profile race where pressure was explicitly exerted when he reminded donors of his power as (then) State Treasurer. However, that pressure is often implicit in knowing that you may not get an audience with a lawmaker if you don’t donate or display their sign or knowing that a judge may not be as favorable to you if you don’t donate or display their sign. I certainly have had individuals tell me that they feel uncomfortable saying no to displaying a sign for a sitting judge or a sitting legislator, whether or not that individual meant to exert pressure or not.
Signs are being stolen, including from County Democratic headquarters, and police are investigating. Has that happened to your signs?
Unfortunately, like many other candidates, it has happened to my signs. Not to a tremendous extent but signs go missing, get thrown down in the grass, or are moved. I wish that there were a better and fairer method of governing the display of signs and monitoring who takes them. Unfortunately, that system doesn’t exist.
I saw that a local non-profit organization was displaying your opponent’s sign; I thought that wasn’t allowed.
Such a non-profit could be in danger of losing their tax-exempt status if they take part in political campaigning (unless they are a political PAC). I have had offers from non-profit groups with whom I am associated to display signs, highlight me at a function, etc., but I have always reminded them that it is not part of their permitted activities. I feel similarly about businesses that have offered to display my sign: although they may be allowed to do so, I fear that showing political favoritism (particularly in today’s environment) could only harm their business. I ask owners and employees that they support me as individuals and not as a business.
Some positions are term-limited; should that be the case for MDJ?
I think that it is important for new ideas to come into the system with many positions, including MDJ. When one starts a position, there is a passion and a search for innovation that are harder to maintain over the long haul. Additionally, I think it is important for an MDJ to have had recent experience arguing in court and remembering what is like to represent clients and to remember what those clients are experiencing.
Any closing thoughts?
I have gone to community events or knocked on doors almost every day since I started this campaign in February and I want to say thank you to all of my supporters as well as to all of those who support my opponent but gave me time to talk with them about the issues and the changes that I would like to see in our judicial system. I hope that some of my ideas for helping working individuals through expanded court hours outside of the work day, keeping children in school by having judges hold truancy court at the school, and expanding the veterans’ court program are adopted by others. It would be an honor to serve the community as its next Magisterial District Judge.