For several decades, I have regularly traveled to federal court in Philadelphia. As an attorney who handles employment discrimination cases, the reality of my situation is that federal laws are usually involved.
When federal laws are involved, a case ends up in federal court. Even if a case is filed in state court, a defendant can transfer it to federal court. As a result, many of my cases were assigned to federal judges sitting in Philadelphia.
Don Russo's personal annoyance and inconvenience in traveling to Philadelphia are inconsequential. However, what is far from being inconsequential is the slap in the face handed out to residents of the Lehigh Valley who were told that their cases had to be heard in Philadelphia.
I enjoy federal court, but as a resident of Northampton County, there is just no easy way to drive to Philadelphia. Ironically, Local Rule 40.1(b) of the federal civil procedural rules for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania states that a federal case arising in the Lehigh Valley or Reading has to be litigated in the Lehigh Valley or Reading.
In recent years, the rule has not been followed because, with the exception of Judge James Knoll Gardner, there were no federal judges appointed to the Lehigh Valley. In addition to Judge Gardner, there is one U.S. magistrate judge, Judge Henry S. Perkin. As a general rule, however, a U.S. magistrate judge hears only civil cases if both sides to the litigation agree to submit the case to a magistrate judge.
Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Franklin Van Antwerpen is a former federal trial judge who once served on Northampton County Court. Judge Van Antwerpen was subsequently appointed to the federal court and later to the appellate court. He still maintains his judicial offices in Easton. However as an appellate judge he no longer presides over trials in Easton.
The shortage of federal judges in the Lehigh Valley was due in part to a political deadlock. Fortunately, that situation is changing.
On June 6, Edward G. Smith was sworn in as a federal judge for our district. Judge Smith, a Northampton County judge and a captain in the Navy, will work from the U.S. courthouse in Easton. He served in Iraq. It did not go unnoticed that June 6 was the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The speakers during Judge Smith's swearing-in ceremony laid out the historical background and events that led to all of us sitting comfortably in an air conditioned courtroom on that beautiful day.
This American experiment in democracy is a work in progress, and I pray it continues long after I am gone. There are flaws in our legal system, and over the years I have railed at the host of injustices I have witnessed. Yet at the end of the day, this constitutional republic created 225 years ago still works and serves us all.
It is difficult to understand how or why American boys had to be cut to pieces by German machine gunners on Omaha Beach 70 years ago. I cannot justify their deaths, but if those lives were lost to preserve our government and our legal system, then we owe those soldiers an eternal debt of gratitude.
Our federal legal system was created in 1787. That system remains strong today. In this cynical, jaded age, we lose sight of the fact that there still are things worth dying for. Men and women who sacrificed their lives to protect our democracy did not die in vain, because our democracy is alive and well.
Sens. Pat Toomey and Robert Casey, a Republican and a Democrat, seldom agree on anything. Yet both agreed that Judge Smith is a man who rises above partisanship. These senators have also now agreed to submit veteran Bethlehem attorney Joseph F. Leeson Jr. for a federal judgeship nomination.
These two superb Lehigh Valley selections were a long time in coming. Our area finally seems to be getting credit as a major metropolitan center in Pennsylvania. In addition to sparing me a sore back and bleary eyes arising from those countless trips to Philadelphia, our two senators have finally now delivered for the Lehigh Valley. They did the job we elected them to do.
Perhaps those of us who live here can feel a bit more patriotic as we enjoy our picnics and watch those fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Donald P. Russo is an attorney in Bethlehem. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.