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Courts & Justice

Reformers Make Headway In County Judicial Races

lisa_middleman.jpg
Courtesy of the Friends of Lisa Middleman
Lisa Middleman says voters embraced a more diverse bench, with new ideas about criminal justice

A bid to reshape Allegheny County’s approach to justice appeared to make real headway on Tuesday evening.

Nine seats were up for grabs on the County’s Common Pleas Court, and unofficial early results showed a reform-minded set of hopefuls were poised to capture five of them. They were: Allegheny County Controller Chelsea Wagner; attorney and former Magistrate Judge Wrenna Watson; local attorney Nicola Henry-Taylor, defense attorney and former District Attorney candidate Lisa Middleman, and Duquesne University clinical law professor Tiffany Sizemore.

The other four top Democratic vote-getters were Sabrina Korbel, Elliot Howsie, Bruce Beemer, and Jessel Costa.

"The people of Allegheny County are ready for big change in the judicial system,” said Middleman. “There are a lot of progressive people that want to see the system be fair and equitable to all people, and I think that's what this election showed.”

Two-thirds of the top nine Democrats were women, and four are Black, a fact that Middleman said “demonstrates that people recognize that people who have been traditionally disenfranchised need to have a voice. … These are people who have not had a voice in how our system operates."

Judicial candidates are allowed to cross-file with both parties, and Beemer, Korbel and Middleman all finished in the top tier of Republican candidates as well. The rest of the GOP field included Joseph Parick Murphy, Anthony DeLuca, Daniel J. Konieczka, Jr., William Caye, Chuck Porter and Mark Patrick Flaherty.

The sheer number of candidates on the ballot — 39 — both suggested how much was up for grabs this year, and how difficult it was for voters to make sense of it. The nine seats available on the county’s bench represent roughly a quarter of the county’s judgeships — a rare opportunity to alter, or reaffirm, the county’s approach to criminal justice.

A handful of progressive activist groups sought to seize the moment by advancing a “Slate of 8,” a roster of candidates committed to criminal-justice reforms that include opposing the use of cash bail and finding more ways to divert defendants away from the criminal system when possible.

To some extent, that slate was an effort to provide a base of support to serve as an alternative to the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. The committee's picks, made by party insiders, have been controversial in previous years, when they have been faulted for overlooking progressive candidates and candidates of color. But the party endorsement has long been seen as key for low-wattage races like judicial contests.

Both slates performed well, compared to the overall field. Wagner and Watson were endorsed by both the party and the Slate of 8. In all, 6 out of 9 Democrat-endorsed candidates finished in the top tier — roughly on par with the Slate of 8's performance. And the party charges an endorsement fee which runs into the high four-digits.

The rise of a slate of judges campaigning explicitly on their philosophical beliefs is unusual: Judicial races often are run on little more than candidates’ resumes. But Duquesne University law professor Joe Mistick said it was no surprise to hear candidates speaking openly about such beliefs this year. “Running as ‘a law-and-order judge’ meant certain things. It was a code-phrase,” he said..

“But winning campaigns reflect changing times,” he said. “Students of the law have been talking about these issues for some time,” he said. “We’ve all seen the lack of equity in the system, and when you get some lightning strikes like George Floyd [whose death at the hands of Minneapolis Police sparked nationwide protests], those ideas begin to take form.”

And while the next class of incoming judges won’t be established until November, reformers say Tuesday night’s results have already opened up chances for reform.

Voters “want to see the change we’ve been talking about,” said Henry-Taylor. “They want to see diversity of thought and diversity of experience and diversity of lived experience ... The electorate wants to see not all people who look the same so that when you walk into court, you see someone that looks like you."