Elections for Northampton County’s magisterial district judge seat will take place on May 18. Two South Bethlehem natives, Anthony Rybak and Jordan A. Knisley, are vying for current District Judge Nancy Matos Gonzalez’s seat. After 30 years in the position, Gonzalez has decided not to seek re-election.
Each county is split into districts, each having a local judge called a magistrate. The magistrate is a local connection to the court system and is the first place South Bethlehem residents come when approaching the judicial system.
The magistrate is responsible for decisions concerning Lehigh University students, including traffic citations, landlord disputes, underage drinking and possession charges.
“College kids get into just as much trouble as anybody else… any kind of bar fight, underage drinking, possession charge, DUI, criminal mischief… all of those matters go to your local magistrate first,” Knisley said.
Rybak said the attitude of the local magistrate towards the university population can have an impact on students, given that students who face any kind of charges must face Bethlehem’s magisterial district judge first.
Both Rybak and Knisley grew up in South Bethlehem. Knisley attended Fountain Hill Elementary School, Broughal Middle School and Liberty High School and said her mom still lives in town. While in law school, she interned and clerked in Northampton County.
“The South Side is a great place to live and I call it my home, but it’s still a relatively underprivileged and underserved part of the city and for that reason I think it is vital that we get the right person with the right values to serve the community,” Knisley said.
Knisley hopes to make sure residents of South Bethlehem have a positive experience.
“It’s really important to me, having grown up in the South Side, that they feel comfortable and confident in coming to their local magistrate.”
Rybak said he has lived on the South Side for almost his whole life and his family has been in the area for 100 years. Both his father and grandfather were lawyers and his father also served as a state representative. He described growing up around them as impactful.
Rybak has been a lawyer for 22 years. He believes his wide breadth of experience makes him the best candidate and describes holding the position as the natural next step in his career.
“The best thing about me as an attorney is that I never judge my clients,” Rybak said.
Rybak also believes his background makes him a strong candidate by being able to establish a “commonality” with people. He worked various jobs before becoming a lawyer and described this non-traditional route as important in being able to relate to people.
He said he has worked in construction, as an electrician and in a grocery store. He thinks his sense of relatability is important when serving the community. Additionally, as a father of two, Rybak sees his understanding of family as a strength when having South Bethlehem residents come before him.
Both candidates have served as assistant public defenders as well.
“I am absolutely paying attention to local politics, now more so than ever in the past,” said Bethlehem resident Joanna Lovell.
As the election gets closer, Lovell said she will make an informed decision when she sees the candidates names on the ballot.