For the first time in 24 years, Ron Costa, Sr., will face an opponent in the Nov. 7 election for magisterial district judge. Attorney Mik Pappas is running to unseat him in Pennsylvania’s 31st Magisterial District, which includes eight East End neighborhoods.
Running as an Independent, Pappas calls himself progressive. He's been endorsed by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and said that Donald Trump’s victory in last year’s presidential election energized his supporters.
“That’s what kind of this response to 2016 is all about, channeling all that grassroots energy that’s out there,” Pappas said, “channeling it all into a local election that’s going to make a big difference in the lives of a lot of real people out there.”
Magisterial district courts are the lowest-level courts in Pennsylvania, where many cases get their start. Among other matters, magisterial district judges are responsible for setting bail and adjudicating landlord-tenant disputes. If elected, Pappas pledges to curtail the use of bail and to protect renters from eviction.
Tenant protections are especially important in the city’s East End, Pappas said, because rising housing costs are forcing people out.
“We’re talking about single moms. We’re talking about seniors. Folks that are truly vulnerable, folks that need a district justice that is going to endeavor to be smart on tenants, not tough on tenants,” Pappas said.
According to the attorney, in about 500 landlord-tenant cases last year, Costa ruled in favor of landlords nearly 90 percent of the time.
Costa disputes Pappas’ claims that these cases usually result in evictions. Rather, he said that in almost all of the cases, he helped renters who were behind on rent to develop repayment plans with their landlords.
“I do try, on behalf of the tenant, to mediate with the landlord,” Costa said. “And I would say 95 percent of the landlords are in agreement to accepting payments, and what they’ll do is they’ll say, ‘OK, can you pay an extra $100 a month until you get caught up?’ And, most of the people do it.”
Most people also get to stay in their homes, Costa added.
Pappas is skeptical. He said Costa should allow more time in landlord-tenant cases so that tenants can access necessary legal resources.
He also noted Costa’s campaign signs are posted on a number of properties owned by the district’s biggest landlords.
“That to me, on the face of it, raises substantial red flags," Pappas said.
Costa disputes any suggestion of impropriety. He said his campaign team handles all transactions related to his reelection, including the distribution of signs and acceptance of donations, precisely because he must remain neutral as a judge.
The same principle, he contends, should hold for judicial candidates like Pappas.
“He would have been better off running for state representative or state senator with some of the things he wants to do,” Costa said. “You can’t change the laws that are on the book. You have to follow the laws.”
But within those laws, Pappas countered, judges have the authority to adopt procedures that better balance tenants’ and landlords’ interests.
District 8 includes Bloomfield, East Liberty, Friendship, Garfield, Highland Park, Morningside, Stanton Heights and Lawrenceville.