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Courts & Justice

New local judges are named to court seats — though not always the ones they hoped for

lisa_middleman.jpg
Courtesy of the Friends of Lisa Middleman
Lisa Middleman will soon take a seat in the Court of Common Pleas' Family Division

The 10 candidates elected to Allegheny County Common Pleas judgeships this fall have been assigned to their courtrooms — and though several campaigned on a platform to reform criminal justice, only one is set to actually begin hearing criminal cases.

But activists who helped those candidates elected may get the last word in future election cycles.

Bruce Beemer and Elliot Howsie, who'd been appointed to fill earlier vacancies and were running this year for full terms, will return to their posts in the criminal division. They will be joined by Thomas Caufield and Wrenna Watson, both of whom were elected this past year. Current Judge Jennifer Satler will be transferred from family court to the criminal division.

Watson was one member of a “Slate of 8” backed this past spring by progressives who wanted to change the county’s approach to criminal justice. Five members of the slate won races in the Democratic primary last spring, and all five of those won seats in November. But Watson was the only member of the slate to be placed on the criminal bench.

Lisa Middleman, who challenged District Attorney Stephen Zappala in 2019 and has been a standard-bearer for justice reform ever since, was assigned to the family division’s juvenile section. She will be joined there by fellow Slate of 8 member Tiffany Sizemore.

Four of the other freshman judges elected this year will serve in the family division’s adult section: Jessel Costa, Nicola Henry Taylor, Sabrina Korbel and Chelsa Wagner. Of those, Henry Taylor and Wagner were members of the Slate.

Most of the judges will take their seats on January 3.

Kim Berkeley Clark, the county’s president judge, notified judges of their assignments in an email Monday afternoon. Clark's email said she assigned the new judges — and transferred three current judges seeking new posts — “after discussion with the administrative judges [who administer each division of the court] and much deliberation.”

Appointments are determined by a number of factors, including existing openings. It is not unusual for incoming judges to be assigned to the family division, where they hear cases involving matters like divorce and custody disputes, as well as adjudicating criminal cases involving minors. Some judges, including some members of the Slate of 8, actively seek out such a posting because it can enable them to intervene in a defendant’s life at an early stage.

Still, the outcome of this year’s judicial elections was notable in that several of the candidates were running on a platform driven by a specific judicial philosophy, one that offered less-punitive approaches to criminal justice. (Judicial candidates frequently confine themselves to reciting their credentials and Bar Association ratings.) And Middleman’s absence from the 15-member criminal bench in particular is disheartening, said one of the activists who helped to elect her and others on the slate.

Advancing the slate “was about criminal justice and the need to alter that system, and that’s why we worked in partnership with other organizations to elect people who would make changes in how criminal justice works,” said Miracle Jones, director of legislative affairs for One Hood Power. “These new appointments don’t reflect 100 percent of what that looks like. We’re disappointed with a couple of the appointments, but we are very excited for the people placed in the family and juvenile justice section, because that will alter the way that children are funneled through the system.”

Jones said the setback reflects the fact that “any time there is a grassroots movement for change, there is always going to be pushback. The system is designed to protect itself."

Middleman herself declined comment on the appointments Monday evening. But Jones said that current judges shouldn’t get too comfortable.

She noted that judges, once elected, come before voters for straight up-or-down retention votes every 10 years. While the results of those votes are usually forgone conclusions, progressives have proven an ability to turn out voters even, and especially, in races that often draw little attention.

“We’re starting to look to educate people about retention votes,” Jones said. “A lot of these judges aren’t going out to talk about their beliefs or how they run their courtroom.” She noted that the Allegheny County bench has seen its share of controversial behavior, including one judge who resisted efforts to allow courtroom observers to view proceedings online, and another who has been accused of using racial epithets.

“We want to make sure our justice system is based in the community these judges are supposed to serve,” Jones said.