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Criminal Justice Was Key Rallying Point For Progressives Who Triumphed In This Week’s Primary

Pennsylvania State Rep. Ed Gainey speaks to a crowd on the North Shore on Monday, May 10, 2021.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Criminal justice organizers helped to mobilize voters in support of Democrat Ed Gainey, who defeated incumbent Bill Peduto in the Democratic primary for Pittsburgh mayor Tues., May 18, 2021.

Local activists scored wins up and down the ballot in Tuesday’s primary election, thanks in large part to the broader movement to reform the criminal justice system and advance police accountability.

Brandi Fisher, a prominent community organizer in the Pittsburgh area, said the energy that has propelled those causes since last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests was key to activists’ effort to boost progressive and Black voter turnout.

“People say, ‘Oh, Black people do not vote.’ But we know very well that Black people do vote. It's just that often their vote doesn't equate to change or better quality of life for them. They don't see it,” said Fisher, who leads the Alliance for Police Accountability. “And so we wanted to give people something that directly impacted them.”

With the backing of groups like Fisher’s, Democrat Ed Gainey toppled incumbent Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto, setting Gainey up to become the first Black person to lead the city. Peduto had drawn sharp criticism from activists for the way city police handled the local racial justice protests last summer.

Turnout was clearly a factor in Gainey's win. Over 39% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the race, compared to only 25.4% when Peduto last ran for re-election in 2017.

Tuesday also featured a strong showing by a handful of progressive-backed contenders for the Democratic nomination to serve on the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. Those candidates have embraced justice system reforms that aim to reduce incarceration. Four of the local Democratic trial judge nominees are Black, and six are women.

If they prevail in November, the number of Black judges on the common pleas court would nearly double, increasing from four to seven, while the number of women would rise from 14 to 20. There currently are 44 judges serving on the court, with nine seats up for election. All but two of the open seats will be vacated by white men. The other two were held by white women who’ve already stepped down.

Aside from boosting a diverse field of progressive candidates, a coalition of grassroots organizations, including Fisher’s, used the election to address criminal justice issues head-on: They proposed two ballot questions restricting the use of solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail and banning no-knock warrants in the city of Pittsburgh. Both measures won handily Tuesday.

Those initiatives were central to motivating voters who were likely to support activists’ favored candidates, Fisher said. She noted that police practices and conditions of incarceration are especially meaningful to Black people, who are disproportionately likely to get caught up in the criminal justice system.

“We need people to vote. We need people to vote for judges. And people don't normally vote for judges. People don’t normally know who is running for judge to even vote for [them],” Fisher said. The ballot initiatives were “our way … to give people something that would help change their quality of life. And with that, we figured that they would come out to vote for those changes.”

Taken together, "This election is the story of an ascendant movement for justice that came to define an election cycle," said a post-primary statement from Unite!, a political committee that helped organize support for many of the candidates and causes on Tuesday's ballot.

“It’s very striking that you had a number of candidates very explicitly campaigning on a reform platform and that that was successful," said Alicia Bannon, managing director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. "That's a real change in the discourse compared to a lot of other judicial elections.”

“Historically, tough-on-crime rhetoric has been widespread and very effective in judicial elections,” Bannon noted.

Wrenna Watson, a member of the progressive-backed "Slate of 8" and former magisterial district judge, prevailed in her bid to secure the Democratic nomination for the Allegheny Common Pleas Court Tues., May 18, 2021.
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Wrenna Watson, a member of the progressive-backed "Slate of 8" and former magisterial district judge, prevailed in her bid to secure the Democratic nomination for the Allegheny Common Pleas Court Tues., May 18, 2021.

Bannon’s organization advocates for greater racial, gender, and professional diversity on the bench. Courts today are predominantly white and male at both the state and federal levels. Nearly half of state supreme courts, for example, have no justices of color, the Brennan Center reported in April.

Homogeneity on the bench, Bannon said, undermines the public’s trust in the fairness of the justice system.

“Courts have a tremendous impact on people's lives,” she said. “They're hearing criminal cases. They're hearing cases that can involve people's financial stability, their rights, their freedom. And if … the judges that are hearing these cases don't look anything like the communities that are being impacted by their decisions, then that's a real crisis for our court system.”

While research is mixed on whether the demographics of judges make a difference in their decision-making, studies have shown they have an impact in cases involving affirmative action, sexual harassment and discrimination, and voting rights.

And, Bannon noted, “Those studies [suggest] it wasn't only the diverse judges who were ruling differently: It was their colleagues as well, because judges learn from each other.”

Attorney Tim Lewis, who served as a judge on the federal trial court for western Pennsylvania and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in the 1990s, said a wide range of perspectives among judges is essential to fostering “a marketplace of ideas” in judicial deliberations.

“Ideally, judicial decision-making is driven by the facts and the law that applies to the case before any particular judge. But we know that there are nuances that arise in various cases,” Lewis said.

“For example,” he added, “someone from a particular community — whether it's a Black community, whether it is a rural community, whatever it might be — may have a different understanding of certain issues that affect that community that could be meaningful in making a decision on sentencing or on any number of the many issues that come before judges."

And the stakes are high, Lewis said, because the exchange of ideas between judges offers “the best way to approach dealing with systemic racism within the judicial system.”