As I prepare to retire on Dec. 31 after 20 years of service as judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Centre County, a bit of reflection seems to be in order.
Each day of service as the 29th judge elected in Centre County has been an honor. I have been surrounded by the most committed and dedicated people within the court system that anyone can imagine. It is a complete tribute to all of them that we have such a top-notch court system.
County judges serve a broad spectrum of the county population. Judges typically spend about one-third of their time on family law matters, another one-third on civil and miscellaneous matters and a final one-third on criminal matters (which gather the most public interest). Almost all hearings and trials are held at the county seat, Bellefonte. But in my 20 years, I have held trials at a construction site or two, the Woodward Tavern, in a field looking at property corners and even in a barn in Yarnell. Sometimes justice just requires a hands-on view.
While both sides in a dispute are encouraged to have lawyers to assist in the presentation of their case, it is not required. Nearly 75 percent of those in custody and family court come to the court without a lawyer. On the criminal side, although the court will appoint a lawyer for free, we are seeing an increasing number of inmates who wish to represent themselves.
Over the past 20 years, our county jail has increased in size from 72 beds to more than 300. The state correctional institutions in the county have increased their population by more than 100 percent, with the addition of the new SCI Benner several years ago. All inmates have the chance of being processed through our court system if their “stay” in Centre County lock-ups goes awry in some way. We have many disputes and other infractions that happen in the corrections system that all must be resolved in our court, including the inmate who sued because his favorite sneakers were lost in an inmate move.
Dedicated and committed people in our state and local area have enhanced the programming, treatment and facilities to increase safety and decrease violence in our community. All of these efforts have been a great assist to the court and have allowed the ever more complex matters to be resolved in everyone’s best interests. Families who deal with their problems through drug court, DUI court, family reunification or the Child Advocacy Center all know how improved the “system” is from where it was just a few years ago. I am confident that fresh and innovative ideas will continue to come forward.
Thank you for the honor of allowing me to serve as your judge for the past 20 years.
Tom Kistler, who was elected judge in Centre County in 1997 and appointed president judge in 2012, led a course for OLLI at Penn State this year on “A Day in the Life of the President Judge.” OLLI — open to adults who love to learn — is offering more than 140 courses this coming spring semester. To receive a free spring catalog, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.