Editor’s note: Below is the full text of Magisterial District Judge Lincoln S. Zilhaver’s letter responding to a request for comment from The Meadville Tribune about the potential for punishment of a court employee who did not obey a subpoena to testify.
To: Area News Organizations
From: Magisterial District Judge Lincoln S. Zilhaver
Date: Monday, November 04, 2013
Re: 10/30/2013 Meadville Tribune Story “Court worker ignores subpoena, receives fine”
“Last week I was in Harrisburg at the Pennsylvania Judicial Center for continuing legal education. During my time there, I was informed that one of my secretaries, Mary Sanderson, was removed from my office under arrest on Wednesday, October 30, 2013. The reason for her arrest was for failure to appear for a hearing under subpoena before Magisterial District Judge William Chisholm in Meadville on Tuesday, October 29, 2013. I have had an opportunity to review the matter, and I find no cause to take disciplinary action against Ms. Sanderson.
“First off, let us remember Ms. Sanderson is a crime victim in the Hutchinson case before Chisholm. She was not required to attend the hearing, unless she is served with a subpoena.
“In August, Ms. Sanderson advised Trooper Cox that she did not wish to testify. The officer waited until the morning of the hearing to contact Ms. Sanderson. At that time, he advised her she needed to appear for the hearing. She informed him that I was out of the office and the only other staff present to operate the office was a newly hired person whom she was training. Furthermore, up to that point she had not been served with a subpoena.
“After that conversation, at approximately 9:38 A.M., the trooper served a subpoena on Ms. Sanderson to appear for the 11:00 A.M. hearing that morning. This is the same officer I have had to dismiss criminal cases in the past because he himself failed to appear for preliminary hearings.
“On that day, all of last week for that matter, Ms. Sanderson and my recently hired secretary were the only personnel staffing my office. We are required by Common Pleas Order to have our office open to conduct regular business 8:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. Monday through Friday, except holidays. Until our new secretary has enough training and experience to operate the office by herself, Ms. Sanderson, myself or some other experienced staff must be present to allow the office to conduct regular business.
“Consequently, on the morning Ms. Sanderson was served with the subpoena, arrangements needed to be made to bring staff in to operate the office. Given the short time-frame between when Ms. Sanderson was served with the subpoena and the hearing, less than an hour and a half, we had no time to make such arrangements.
“Chisholm’s office was aware of this situation through the officer, and Ms. Sanderson relayed the same to the Judge at the contempt hearing. Judge Chisholm had other options: he could have proceeded to the hearing without Ms. Sanderson; he could have continued the hearing to another day, issue the subpoena, giving us reasonable opportunity to excuse her from work to attend the hearing. Ms. Sanderson never said she was not willing at all to appear at a hearing under subpoena.
“Obviously, Judge Chisholm has strong feelings about the case to have proceeded with it as scheduled and require that Ms. Sanderson appear. Then, when she did not appear for the hearing that upset him further. He decided to charge her with contempt and issue a warrant for her arrest. Clearly, Ms. Sanderson did not intend to disobey the subpoena.
“If that was not incredible enough, the Judge then contacted a Meadville Tribune reporter and invited him to attend the contempt hearing. Judge Chisholm then publicly castigated Ms. Sanderson. Chisholm sits on Special Court Judges Association’s Ethics and Professionalism Committee, which is charged with advising magisterial district judges throughout Pennsylvania on proper judicial conduct.
“I do not condone victims calling the police and then later deciding to not testify. If you call the police, then later refuse to testify, then perhaps the incident was not as serious to involve the police and courts. Those resources maybe could have been better used elsewhere.
“Ms. Sanderson’s not wanting to testify is not really the issue here, however. She had not yet appeared for the hearing for good cause. Yet, the trooper and judge made it the issue and manufactured the events that happened last week that shamefully disgraced a crime victim, disrupted my office and made a mockery of the system. Clearly this matter could and should have been handled in a more proper and dignified manner.”