The finding that a former northwestern Pennsylvania district judge misclassified more than 800 civil claims raises serious questions that need to be addressed.
Probably the most basic one in many people’s minds is whether district judge training is all that it should be in terms of preparing individuals for that important job.
What, if any, ramifications does the former district judge face for having erred so many times, either unintentionally, intentionally or both?
Beyond that, will or will not an expanded probe be conducted of years not yet examined? The district judge in question served for 12 years before being defeated for reelection in November 2017. The audit that turned up the more than 800 misclassified cases covered only the years 2014-17.
The former district judge at the center of the troubling findings is Brenda Williams Nichols, a Democrat, whose court was in Corry, Erie County, about 30 miles southeast of the city of Erie.
A report released by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale indicates that people seeking to collect debts avoided filing fees because Nichols misfiled their cases as summary theft-of-services offenses rather than merely civil claims.
DePasquale’s audit report claims that Nichols’ practice “was instituted as a means to reduce the financial burden on the complainant at the time of filing by eliminating the necessity of collecting advance costs on civil actions.”
Civil cases that became criminal cases as a result of what Nichols allegedly was doing involved situations such as unpaid repair service bills, unpaid YMCA bills and overdue library book fees and unpaid credit union debts.
It is believed that state coffers lost about $33,000 in filing fees but, like the current uncertainty over the actual number of misclassified cases during the full extent of Nichols’ judicial service, the lost fees actually could involve much more money.
To not examine all of the years of Nichols’ judicial service would be a disservice to the people of this state. Meanwhile, DePasquale’s reported opinion that improper records should be expunged is correct.
While it is true that the people who chose to shirk their payment obligations are the ones ultimately responsible for their cases having landed before Nichols, they had the right to expect that those cases would be dealt with fairly and correctly, not irresponsibly.
The improper-case-classification problem was discovered after someone undergoing an employment background check discovered that he or she had a court record purportedly involving theft.
“Imagine the absolute shock of being asked to explain why you have a criminal record that you didn’t even know existed,” DePasquale said.
A spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has said that an effort currently is underway to bring the situation to a just resolution. It doesn’t seem that will be possible without expunging improper records.
It also doesn’t seem possible without Nichols being held fully accountable for having mishandled her important responsibility, but that will require an expanded investigation.
Then there is the question about whether the state’s training program is adequate.
It is troubling that Nichols’ actions took so long to be exposed.