Longtime District Judge Patricia Zaffarano is being challenged in the May 17 primary by sitting Upper Dublin School Board President Michael J. Paston.
Zaffarano, a Republican, and Paston, a Democrat, have both cross-filed in the primary for the six-year 38-1-10 Magisterial District Court seat that covers Upper Dublin Township and Ambler Borough.
In her 24th year as a district judge, Zaffarano, 56, said she believes the local court is held in high regard and has served the community well, and she would like to continue along those lines.
“The people of Ambler and Upper Dublin are proud of the court here,” Zaffarano said. “I have their respect and [that of] other members of the bench and law enforcement and I want to keep serving where I’ve lived my whole life.”
A lifelong resident of Upper Dublin, the judge is a graduate of Upper Dublin High School, Penn State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement and corrections, and the Villanova University School of Law. Following a two-year judicial clerkship, she spent seven years as a Montgomery County assistant district attorney, part of that time as supervisor of the Sex Crimes Unit.
“My qualifications are excellent for this position,” Zaffarano said, citing her law degree and years in the district attorney’s office and as a district judge. “I know my way around the courtroom — how to deal with witnesses,” and those who come before the court.
First elected to the bench in 1987, Zaffarano works full-time in the position and has received the endorsement of Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, who said in a statement: “Judge Zaffarano exemplifies the finest qualities we need in our judges. She is well-respected throughout Montgomery County for her temperament, her sense of fairness and her knowledge of the law … she has a proven track record of protecting and serving the community and rendering justice for all.”
“My job,” Zaffarano said, “is to make sure every person gets a full opportunity to be heard and to render a fair and impartial decision. That’s the role of a district judge.”
A district court handles preliminary arraignments and hearings for those charged with criminal offenses, hearings for summary traffic and non-traffic offenses and for landlord-tenant complaints and civil disputes involving those seeking damages up to $12,000.
“Sometimes we’re the only contact people will have with the court system and it’s important that it be a positive experience,” she said.
Technology has changed the way the court runs during her tenure, and a new software computer program is expected soon, Zaffarano said, noting the state controls what and when the district courts are given technological equipment.
Asked if she would offer night hours in the future, Zaffarano said, “Twenty-three years ago we tried that and found it wasn’t really successful. We’ve found that normal court hours have really worked. We try to get people in and out on time.
“I pride myself on my patience, integrity and ability to be impartial,” Zaffarano said. “I hope the voters believe the same thing and allow me to stay in office and serve them for another six years.”
Dresher resident Michael Paston said he had no qualms with any rulings Zaffarano has made over the years, but that “the court has been exactly the same for 24 years and it’s time for a fresh look and a new person.”
Paston, 46, an Upper Dublin School Board member since 2003 and president since 2006, said his decision to not run for school board again and instead turn his sights to the district court was not an easy one.
“I believe in public service and I think it’s time for another challenge,” he said. “I always had an eye on it [the district court seat] and would like to use my skills and experience to give back to the community.”
A consultant at the 501 Group in Fort Washington, which provides strategic planning for school districts planning a referendum, Paston has a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Penn State University and a law degree from the Temple University School of Law.
He worked as a tax consultant at Laventhol & Horwath and Price Waterhouse, both in Philadelphia, for two years before opening a general law practice in Mount Laurel, N.J., from 1991 to 2000. From 2001 to 2008 he was the operator and part-owner of Jaguar Press, a printing/copying business in Fort Washington, and in 2007 established the 501 Group.
“I bring more variety of experiences,” Paston said, having been an accountant, lawyer, small-business owner and member of the school board. Having served as a youth sports coach as well, he said, “I’ve been active in the community and think I have a good read on the community and what it expects.”
If elected district judge, Paston said he would serve that position full-time and would add night hours.
“I think a night court is important,” he said. “It shouldn’t be demanded that someone miss a day of work” to attend a court session. “Especially a defendant in a civil suit [who may feel they were unjustly sued] shouldn’t have to have that personal expense of missing a day’s work,” he said.
Referring to his eight years on the school board, during which he served on a number of task forces and as a liaison to different groups, Paston said he has “an extra interest in kids. I think I bring the ability to know when someone may need tough love or maybe some leniency is needed. I don’t want to ruin someone’s life because they’ve done something stupid,” but still there is a need for some type of punishment, he said.
Some other municipalities have alternative programs for nonviolent juvenile crime, Paston said, and he would look into adapting something similar in the local court.
“In some ways the court is in a time warp,” he said. There is no answering machine at the court providing hours of operation or a means to leave a message for certain services, and “they don’t accept emails,” he said. “If you want to request a continuance or get some information you have to send it in writing. You do need to put things in writing, but today that’s highly inefficient for some things.”
On a greater scale, though something the local court has no control over, fewer courts are needed, he said, noting there are 30 district courts in Montgomery County.
“Every eight that close saves $1 million,” Paston said. It might be more effective to manage some things at the county level, he said, and while a district judge can’t control that, “they could bring it up and see if things can change a bit.”
Paston said he will not seek any endorsements from any groups or accept any campaign contributions from any lawyers who might appear before him.
“The appearance of being fair is the most important thing of being a local judge,” he said.