NORRISTOWN — Members of the Montgomery County bench have received their assignments for the next two years under a plan that takes into consideration three new incoming judges and questions still remaining about the county’s allotment of senior judges.

“I think it’s a final plan subject to change, depending on the circumstances,” county President Judge Thomas M. DelRicci said this week. “It’s not meant to be tentative. It’s meant to be final, unless the circumstances change.”

Three newly-elected judges, Melissa Schwartz Sterling, 49, of Whitemarsh, Virgil B. Walker 61, of Dresher, and Henry S. Hilles III, 53, of Worcester, will take their seats in January. At that time, the county bench will be at a full complement of 24 judges.

DelRicci, who has been president judge since 2017, finalized his plan for judicial assignments last week.

Under the plan, six judges will preside in the criminal court division: Judge Thomas C. Branca; Judge Steven T. O’Neill; Judge William R. Carpenter; Judge Gary S. Silow; Judge Cheryl L. Austin; and Judge Kelly C. Wall.

Judges Thomas P. Rogers, Jeffrey S. Saltz, Garrett D. Page, Steven C. Tolliver, Wendy G. Rothstein and Richard P. Haaz will preside in the civil court division.

In addition to DelRicci, the family court division will include: Judge Carolyn T. Carluccio; Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy; Judge Daniel J. Clifford; Judge Todd D. Eisenberg; and Judge Patricia E. Coonahan.

Judges Gail A. Weilheimer and Lois E. Murphy will preside in Orphans’ Court.

Judge Risa Vetri Ferman will preside over juvenile court matters come January.

O’Neill will continue to oversee the county’s drug treatment court while Eisenberg will oversee behavioral health court and Austin will oversee veterans’ court matters.

During a recent sit-down interview, DelRicci explained the judicial assignments were fashioned, in part, by potential state changes in the senior judge program.

Traditionally, the county bench has senior judges who serve on a part-time basis to assist with the court’s work.

“This was necessary and remains necessary because of the volume of cases in Montgomery County as well as the increase in the population of Montgomery County. We serve 800,000-plus people,” said DelRicci, explaining the need for senior judges.

Currently, the county bench relies on five senior judges and they primarily preside in criminal miscellaneous, family signing and civil emergency equity courts.

“That frees up our other judges to handle trials. It’s really helped us manage our caseload,” DelRicci, a member of the bench since 1998, explained. “We need senior judge help. Our caseloads continue to grow because our population continues to grow.

“Their service is remarkable. When you think about how many years of experience and the wisdom they have, they can handle cases of any type and they can do it quickly and efficiently and fairly. That wealth of experience is invaluable to the court and to the litigants and we hope we don’t lose that valuable resource,” added DelRicci, explaining the importance of senior judges.

Currently, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts is reviewing the senior judge program to make certain that senior judges are properly allocated statewide.

“Of course the purpose of this was to be good stewards of taxpayers’ money. They don’t want senior judges sitting idly and I can assure you none of ours ever have,” DelRicci said. “We’re not certain, as of this date, whether our current senior judge allocation will be affected by these changes.

“It is possible we could have the same number of senior judges or we could have no senior judges,” DelRicci said. “We will not know our allocation until probably December.”

DelRicci explained he based his upcoming court calendar and judicial assignments on the “worst case scenario, which is no senior judges.”

After consulting with the administrative judges of each division, DelRicci drafted a plan to rotate the three new judges through each of the three major court divisions to handle the work that the senior judges used to handle.

That means Hilles, Walker and Sterling each will serve eight month stints in each of family signing, criminal miscellaneous and civil emergency equity divisions.

“This accomplishes a couple of things. One, it covers for our loss of our senior judges. Two, it allows the new judges to gain a breath of experience in all three divisions within their first two years. So, it’s a remarkable training tool because they will become familiar with all three divisions, quickly,” DelRicci explained.

While the assignments are based on “the assumption that there will not be senior judges available to the court,” DelRicci explained that if the county’s application for senior judge assistance is granted, “this rotation will change.”

That means some changes could be made to the judicial assignments just announced.

“It really depends on how many senior judges I get,” DelRicci said.

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