Ask anyone outside of the commonwealth what the prothonotary does, and
you’ll likely be met with an expression of bewilderment.
In Pennsylvania, the prothonotary is, for all intents and purposes, the clerk of civil courts.
The job, which is an elected position, is the counterpart to the clerk of courts on the criminal justice side of things.
Prothonotaries, who work on the county level, are the keeper of all civil papers, from lawsuits to writs and executions, and judgments to subpoenas.
The term “prothonotary,” which is Latin for “Highest Notary” or “First Scribe,” comes from the English, and like Pennsylvania, it is used by the nation’s other three commonwealth’s – Massachusetts, Virginia and Kentucky.
Now, as Election Day approaches, one candidate who has thrown his hat into the mix for Bucks County prothonotary is doing what would appear to be self-defeating – he’s campaigning on a promise to abolish the position, one of three so-called “row offices” at the county level, the other two being the register of wills and the clerk of courts.
Ron Smolow, a suburban Philadelphia attorney who is running for Bucks County prothontary, is looking to eliminate the position, which dates back hundreds of years, as an independent job, and instead merge it with that of the other two “row” offices.
The goal, he says, is to reduce the size and cost of government in Bucks County, a suburban county just north of Philadelphia.
“Many other Pennsylvania counties, both large and small, operate with elected officials holding two or three of these offices,” Smolow states on his campaign website. “It is my belief that Bucks County can benefit by doing the same.”
To get his goal passed, Smolow has to convince the Pennsylvania General Assembly to amend the Second Class County Code.
He has already put together a draft bill that was sent out to state lawmakers representing his home county.
And earlier this month, he brought his idea before Bucks County commissioners during one of their meetings.
“By merging these offices, we can achieve huge efficiencies and savings for taxpayers by reducing Bucks County’s bloated bureaucracy,” Smolow said in a press release he put together following the commissioners’ meeting. “These three court related offices perform similar functions: the filing, recording, storage and retrieval of court related documents and decisions. There’s no reason they can’t be combined.”
Smolow says that the idea of having three separate row offices is “left over from ancient times when the court system was divided.”
Merging the three offices, the candidate claims, will save taxpayers money by eliminating duplicate tasks, assuring compatibility of computer systems, simplifying and improving service to the public, lawyers and the judiciary, reducing overhead costs, and reducing staff and patronage.
“Many other Pennsylvania counties, large and small, operate with one elected Clerk of Court, rather than three,” he wrote in his press release. “Bucks County should do the same.”
On his campaign site, Smolow says he is running for prothonotary because the office in Bucks County is “broken.”
“As a result,” he wrote, “large sums of taxpayer dollars are being wasted on out-dated systems and unnecessary salaries. I want to fix this mess.”
Smolow said if elected, he would also bring to Bucks County an electronic filing system for court documents, such as the type used in places like Philadelphia County.
According to a biography, Smolow, a Democrat, has been a lawyer practicing in Bucks County for nearly four decades.
The Temple Law School graduate, who is 63 years old, resides in Upper Makefield Township, Bucks County.
As an attorney, Smolow has represented individuals, governments, businesses and other entities in a wide range of legal issues, from breach of contract, fraud, and unfair and deceptive consumer practices matters to personal injury, criminal defense, civil rights and RICO actions.
Smolow’s practice has focused on complex litigation and class action cases.
He has served as plaintiffs’ counsel in state and nationwide class action lawsuits in cases involving defective products, unfair insurance and leasing practices, to healthcare claims, unfair taxation, predatory lending, deceptive practices involving Internet services and telecommuncations issues, according to his biography.
Smolow is a member of various organizations, including the Bucks County Bar Association, the Philadelphia Bar Association, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice Foundation and the Pennsylvania Association for Justice.