Magisterial District Courts and Their Communities: An Exploratory Approach

Open Access
Lapple, Stephanie Jean
Area of Honors:
Crime, Law, and Justice
Bachelor of Science
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • John Henry Kramer, Thesis Supervisor
  • Stacy Silver, Honors Advisor
  • Magisterial District Courts
  • Judges
  • Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
Courts of limited jurisdiction process over sixty five percent of all the cases that come before courts in the United States. Typically these courts are located within smaller geographical venues and process narrow case issues regarding local ordinances, summary offenses, family matters, and cases involving maximum amounts of money or value. Existing literature on all courts rarely focuses on courts of limited jurisdiction. Rather, research focuses on the more visible courts of general jurisdiction where the most serious offenses are processed. This oversight of the lower courts has left an unfortunate vacuum of our knowledge regarding how these courts of limited jurisdiction process cases. These courts are important because all criminal cases begin before this court and they are courts where most defendants’ cases end. This thesis begins to correct this oversight by studying Pennsylvania’s Magisterial District Courts which serve as the courts of limited jurisdiction. To help frame the substantive nature of lower courts, Eisenstein et al.’s (1999) work on communities and function of the court within the community context is used as well as Malcomb Feeley’s (1979) study of Hartford, Connecticut lower courts where he characterized the court procedures requiring defendants to appear in court as “the process is the punishment.” This study uses two exploratory approaches to help to understand courts of limited jurisdiction. Court processing was observed in each of five Magisterial District Courts. Then, six Magisterial District Judges who presided over these courts were interviewed. It was found that many implications of the Magisterial District Courts such as their predictability, the political impact on the processes of courts of limited jurisdiction, and the intricate relations that develop among legal actors distinguish courts of limited jurisdiction from higher courts. The conclusions about courts of limited jurisdiction are then considered within existing theoretical framework. Ultimately, courts of limited jurisdiction are analyzed for how defendants perceive and administer justice when they encounter courts of limited jurisdiction.