ELKLAND - With the retirement of two judges in Tioga County this year, one a longtime Court of Common Pleas judge and the other a magistrate judge, both within months of each other, the county has found itself in a difficult situation.
Tioga County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Robert E. Dalton Jr., 60, announced in September, that he will retire Jan. 7, and District Magistrate Brian Edgcomb, 62, of Elkland, retired after 14 years at the end of September.
Dalton, who has served as president judge in Tioga County since 1992, was retained in 2001 and 2011, and his most recent term would have expired in 2022.
Edgcomb started his law career in 1973 as a probation officer in Potter County and has served as district judge since 1998.
Dalton said he would be willing to continue to serve the county as a senior judge on a reduced basis, as needed, said Court Administrator Nancy Clemens.
According to Clemens, Dalton handles "in the neighborhood" of 600 criminal, 1,500 civil cases, 1,500 family cases, about 200 juvenile cases, about 100 miscellaneous cases including orphan's court cases annually, a total of between 2,400 to 2,500 cases, a caseload that Clemens called "manageable."
Criminal cases are normally heard on Mondays, if possible, she said, but "we work them in when we can."
It is not always possible to schedule criminal cases on Monday, especially when the judge is out of town, or there is no court in session because of holidays.
When Dalton steps down and becomes a senior judge, he no longer will administratively oversee the domestic relations or probation departments at the courthouse, which could tentatively leave those departments without an administrator.
Clemens said she also must find senior judges for any vacancies in the county's three magisterial district offices.
In 2012, Judge James Carlson, in Mansfield, processed 6,064 cases; Judge Rob Repard, in Wellsboro, processed 2,433 cases; and Edgcomb, in Elkland, processed 1,747 cases.
Clemens said the discrepancy is because Carlson has Route 15, "so he does way more traffic than anyone else."
Another wrinkle with Edgcomb's retirement is that with two regular judges seated, they must alternate weekend duties, something that could go on "foreseeably for the next two years," Clemens said.
Senior Judge C. Roger McRae, 62, of Muncy, is filling in for Edgcomb potentially until after the next election in 2015.
McRae was asked to fill in for Edgcomb by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts in early October, and he started making the 80-mile drive to Elkland Oct. 22.
McRae hears cases on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Art Heinz, communications coordinator for the state court system, said judges at all levels must retire at age 70.
If judges decide to retire before their terms are up, Heinz said there is a two-track process to replace them.
Whenever a magisterial district judge vacancy occurs, the first path is administrative, Heinz said.
"The president judge has to determine whether or not the caseload can be filled by other judges in the county or if there is a need to bring in a senior judge," he said, such as occurred with McRae.
"If there is a need, they request one from our office. We maintain a list of senior judges eligible and available to serve and we try to match up that list with the county's needs," he added.
This is important to make sure the court system continues functioning and running, he added.
To replace a vacancy in the Court of Common Pleas, the governor makes an appointment and that appointee is subject to confirmation by the Senate.
"It can be a lengthy process, but that person would serve if and when he or she is confirmed until the next municipal election," he said.
The next municipal election would be in 2015. So the replacement judge or judges would serve until January 2016.
"Up 'til the time someone is appointed to fill the Court of Common Pleas vacancy, we will continue to provide senior judges, and it could be different ones," he added.
A search committee was formed to find a replacement for Dalton, and Nov. 22 was the deadline to apply, according to search committee chairman Erick Coolidge.
Coolidge, a county commissioner, along with former county Commissioner Susan Vogler and attorney Bill Hebe make up the search committee, which hopes to make a recommendation from the five or so applications it has received.
Coolidge said the committee will submit its findings after the first of the year to the governor, who will nominate his choice.
"Our whole responsibility right now is as we have done," Coolidge said.
An interim judge could be selected as soon as Jan. 7, when the Senate goes back into session after the holiday break.