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York County's new president judge discusses building safety, DUIs and breaking glass ceilings

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
President Judge Maria Musti Cook is shown at York County Judicial Center in York City, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The county's new president judge said she is focusing on keeping those who visit and work in the York County Judicial Center safe amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

"I think the biggest job right now for everyone is to get us out of COVID-19 as safely as we can, and I don't think that's going to be quick," President Common Pleas Judge Maria Musti Cook said.

She noted she suspects it's "going to be quite some time" before vaccines are delivered to the general public.

"It's still a week-by-week call as to what we think is safe to do in this building, and we'll have to continue to monitor that because we don't want to put people at risk," Cook said.

Cook said she no longer has concerns about employees and visitors to the judicial center taking off their masks in public areas.

"I think we've mostly gotten on board" with mask-wearing, the judge said, adding that judicial center officials have worked closely with President York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler to make the building safer.

"We've done a good job with the numbers of people in the building," Cook said. "We're continuing to encourage the use of remote technology (such as Zoom) and not bringing people in here unnecessarily. We'll continue to do that for the foreseeable future."

York County Common Pleas Judge Maria Musti Cook

Breaking glass: Cook is the first woman to be named president judge in the York County Court of Common Pleas, taking over Jan. 2 from Common Pleas Judge Joseph C. Adams.

Her term as president judge runs until 2026, and she was unanimously chosen by her fellow York County judges. Adams has called it historic.

The 63-year-old was first elected in 2005 and took the bench in January 2006.

She also was the first woman to be named president of the York County Bar Association, which happened in 1995.

"I think it's always important to keep breaking all the glass ceilings we can to make sure everyone gets the same opportunities," Cook told The York Dispatch. "When I came to the bar, I graduated from a class of 40% women. … I anticipated a field of a lot of women. But there were (about) 15 women practicing in our bar association."

That was 15 out of a total membership of about 250 at the time, the judge said.

President Judge Maria Musti Cook is shown at York County Judicial Center in York City, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

'Could be better': Women now comprise 39% of the York County Bar Association, and four of them are county judges, according to Cook.

"It could be better, but we're still miles ahead of where we were," she said. The other three are Judges Amber A. Kraft, Kathleen J. Prendergast and Andrea Marceca Strong.

"There are still old-school people who don’t think women should be on bench," Cook said. "I faced that when I ran for judge. … Some people were pretty blunt when you knocked on their door."

Cook is a graduate of York Catholic High School, York College and Dickinson School of Law. She serves on York College's board of trustees.

She also is a member of the Rotary Club of York and the Women's Giving Circle.

Judicial vacancies: Cook said York County Common Pleas Court will be dealing with two vacancies going forward.

Common Pleas Judge Richard K. Renn retired about a year ago and is now a senior judge. Fellow Judge Michael E. Bortner retired earlier this month.

Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock has announced his retirement but will remain on the job for about another year.

Citizens will be able to vote for Renn's and Trebilcock's replacements in May's primary election. Bortner's position will remain vacant for three years, but senior judges can fill in, Cook said.

"We should be all right for now," she said.

New York County President Common Pleas Judge Maria Musti Cook bumps elbows with outgoing President Judge Joseph C. Adams at Cook's swearing in Jan. 4, 2021.

DUI, addiction concerns: Cook said York County has the third or fourth highest rate of drunken-driving cases in the state, which would include all cases of vehicular homicide while DUI.

"Our DUI rate is astonishing to me, and it's not getting better even though we try a litany of things to address it," she said.

Cook also is concerned about crimes associated with addiction.

"We do have a substance-abuse issue in York County, and we're throwing a lot of time, talent and money at it — but it's still there," she said.

The judge said the county has been creating programs and options, such as treatment court to deal with addiction-fueled crimes, but "I don't know what the cure is."

President Judge Maria Musti Cook is shown at York County Judicial Center in York City, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Cook said all York County's judges are doing their best to uphold the law fairly, without politics or emotion.

"No system is perfect, but I think we all try very hard to uphold the law," she said.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.