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May 01, 2017

A Day in the Life of a General Jurisdiction Elected Trial Judge

By Judge Stephanie Domitrovich

In 1989, I was 34 years old when I was first elected to the state trial bench by the people of Erie, Pennsylvania, a population of about 250,000. My campaign committee included my family and friends, especially my former students at Penn State Behrend Campus in Erie, and were dubbed by the local newspaper as “Stephanie’s Army.”

As a judicial candidate, I would go door to door meeting with my voters, attending many banquets and events, and shaking many constituents’ hands so I could discuss with them the position of trial judge. I especially loved meeting my constituents at bowling alleys and bingo events, where people would take the time to meet me during intervals of the games. I would hand them my card of qualifications with a piece of candy attached. As constituents would untwist the candy wrappers from the cards with my credentials, I would greet them with “I am Stephanie—without a hitch—Domitrovich” to have them remember my name. They would smile, for my name is clearly long and ethnic—Croatian. I then had the opportunity to inform them about my qualifications and answer their questions. While campaigning, I had to practice law during the day in order to have a paycheck to pay for the campaign expenses. At night, I would prepare speeches and on weekends participate in parades waving to the throngs of people in the crowds. When I was elected, I became the first female judge in my jurisdiction of Erie.

I am a state trial court judge of general jurisdiction in the Court of Common Pleas of Pennsylvania. There are 60 judicial districts, 53 comprising one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, and seven comprising two counties. Each district has from 1 to 93 judges. As a trial judge in Pennsylvania, I was initially elected to a 10-year term, and thereafter I was retained for two additional 10-year terms. As a general jurisdiction judge, I am authorized by law to do everything from divorce to capital cases. This makes my daily life as a trial judge very busy. For instance, in Erie, trial judges are generally assigned to one of two divisions—Trial Division and Family/Orphans’ Court Division. In either division, I preside over morning “Motion Court,” wherein the parties provide notice to the opposing side for emergency motions as well as uncontested motions. I also handle bench warrant reviews, bond reductions, and extradition hearings when I serve in the Trial Division Motion Court.

In both criminal and civil court dockets, I am assigned to decide all pretrial matters, including motions to suppress, motions in limine, motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, and other related matters. I preside over jury trials in both criminal and civil cases. Two weeks every month are set aside for jury trials. Bench trials and other matters are scheduled in the other weeks. In the Trial Division, I preside over civil license suspension cases involving the Department of Transportation as well as liquor license cases with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. I accept pleas from defendants and impose sentences according to the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines after review of the presentence investigation reports. I also preside over change-of-name petitions and criminal summary appeal hearings, which are held de novo before trial judges. I accept first-time offenders into ARD (Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Court) and enter the disposition for each defendant as to length of supervision, state license suspension time periods, and levy fines and fees. I also decide revocation proceedings regarding defendants’ probation and parole status and then sentence accordingly. I address issues raised by defendants in post-conviction collateral relief actions as well as write opinions for appeal cases to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, Pennsylvania Superior Court, and Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In the Trial Division, my administrative judge assigns me to homicide cases, including death penalty cases, from formal arraignment to possible sentencing. Other trial judges outside the division may volunteer to hear these cases also. I presided over a high-profile resentencing in a death penalty case when the federal circuit court reversed another trial judge. When I was a very young judge, I also was assigned to preside over a former trial judge’s triple homicide arson case. This retrial after a Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversal had been delayed for years when other judges became unavailable due to illness. Two children and an adult had been the victims in this high-profile homicide case that also involved cutting-edge forensic science issues.

When I am assigned to the family court docket, I hear cases involving support, nonsupport, paternity, divorce, custody of children, bifurcation of divorces, domestic violence cases such as protection-from-abuse petitions, and indirect criminal contempt actions. As a juvenile court judge, I must preside over trials and dispositions, approve consent decrees, and review juvenile dispositions every six months. The dependency process begins when someone reports suspected child abuse or neglect, when a minor is left without support as a result of parents’ incarceration/institutionalization, or when parents are unwilling to provide care. Numerous hearings and proceedings are held in the best interests of the children such as those regarding detention, adjudication, jurisdiction, disposition, permanency, and six-month reviews. When I am assigned to orphans’ court, I review and decide many petitions, such as settlement of small estates; estate audits; settlement of minor’s claims; petitions for guardianships for adults, children, and charitable organizations; termination of parental rights; and adoptions.

Trial judges across our nation, including Erie, Pennsylvania, have implemented problem-solving courts as alternatives to incarceration in their jurisdictions. With therapeutic treatment courts using collaborative justice in drug and alcohol treatment courts, mental health treatment courts, homeless courts, and veterans’ treatment courts, trial judges have been successful in assisting defendants with intensive treatment and close monitoring. In these courts, trial judges are more involved in closely supervising treatment for less serious offenders and tailor, on a weekly basis, the offenders’ treatment plans assisted by teams of professionals—including psychologists, social workers, treatment providers, and caseworkers. Trial judges use frequent drug testing, judicial and probation supervision, drug treatment counseling, educational opportunities, and sanctions, as well as incentives.

To meet the evolving needs of their communities, trial judges can manage various innovative specialty courts. To respond to the mortgage foreclosure crisis, trial judges have developed Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Programs to provide homeowners with opportunities to save their homes from foreclosures. In commerce or business courts, trial judges manage business lawsuits to foster greater efficiency, consistency, and predictability in resolving business litigation. With human trafficking becoming a growing multibillion-dollar industry, human trafficking courts were developed with judges trained and knowledgeable in the dynamics of sex trafficking and the support services available for victims. To ensure no further victimization of these defendants, trial judges collaboratively work with defense attorneys, prosecutors, legal service providers, law enforcement officials, social services, vocational and educational training providers, domestic violence and sexual assault service providers, and substance abuse and mental health treatment providers. When defendants are successful, their charges are dismissed. In another collaborative justice court, called a multijurisdictional community court, a single trial judge hears neighborhood cases from several police precincts that under ordinary circumstances would go to three different courts—civil, family, and criminal. These trial judges implement unconventional programs such as mediation, community service, and youth court, which reduce fear and improve public trust in government.

I can honestly say I have learned something new every day I have served as a trial judge in my over 27 years. I have amazing opportunities to decide legal issues tailored to the unique factual scenarios of each case. In my daily judicial life, I preside over a wide range of cases from notorious high-profile cases to custody court cases charting the future for young children. I strive to make a difference in my community by implementing innovative collaborative community justice court programs.

Because I firmly believe in judicial education to solve issues within my community, I have earned my Ph.D., with a major in Judicial Studies, from the University of Nevada at Reno (UNR). In order to achieve my Ph.D., I had earned two Masters of Judicial Studies with majors in Trial Judges as well as Juvenile and Family Court Judges at UNR. My first thesis assisted in increasing minority participation on my juries by adding more jury source lists, and my second thesis concerned the value of economic aspects to the “one judge, one family” concept of managing family court cases. My Ph.D. dissertation involved the use of court-appointed experts in several states to aid judges in understanding the complexities of forensic scientific evidence in their gatekeeper roles.

And a day in the life of a trial judge does not end with working on my assigned voluminous caseloads. At noon, at least four times a year, and many evenings, I am working within my community to facilitate task forces on pressing issues such as truancy and domestic violence, participating on nonprofit boards, teaching citizen lessons to students such as Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and lecturing on the rule of law to educate adult citizens about the role of the judiciary. I officiate at swearing-in ceremonies for newly elected officials and law enforcement personnel. I am also authorized to perform weddings and preside at naturalization (new citizens) court.

Although my days and evenings are long and hectic, and to avoid isolation, I network with other judges and lawyers statewide, nationally, and internationally to learn innovative ways to solve community issues. I attend lectures and work on committees of the American Bar Association/Judicial Division and other similar entities. As both a teacher and a student of the law, I have a very rewarding career and enjoy a life that indeed is never mundane. Bottom line—I “walk the walk” by following the rule of law to render justice for all.