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Progressives appear poised for big wins in county judicial races

Courtesy of Nicola Henry-Taylor
Nicola Henry-Taylor is poised to be the top vote-getter among 18 county judicial candidates

In an outcome that could well transform the practice of justice in Allegheny County, four Black candidates — including three women who ran on a slate dedicated to judicial reform — appear to be among the top vote-getters in a race for 10 seats on the Common Pleas bench.

“I’m just in shock more than anything,” said Nicola Henry-Taylor, who is poised to be the top vote-getter among 17 Democrats and Republicans on the ballot. “We never expected this outcome.”

Henry-Taylor was part of a “Slate of 8” — eight candidates who ran on a platform that pledged to rethink the use of cash bail and to stress alternatives to prison and jail time whenever possible. Five members of that slate won in the Democratic primary, and all of them appeared to have won judgeships Tuesday night. Along with Henry-Taylor, they are: Tiffany Sizemore, Wrenna Watson, Lisa Middleman and Chelsa Wagner.

The other winning candidates appear to be Elliott Howsie, Tom Caulfield, Sabrina Korbel, Bruce Beemer and Jessel Costa. All are Democrats, though judicial candidates are allowed to run under both party’s banner and three — Beemer, Korel and Middleman — also appeared on the Republican ticket.

GOP officials argued that eight out of 10 candidates on their slate were worthy of Republican support, in part because they hewed to a more traditional approach to justice. But those candidates fared poorly Tuesday.

Common Pleas Court judges serve 10-year terms before getting an up-or-down vote on retention. Depending on their assignment, they can hear criminal and civil matters, as well as family disputes in divorce or custody cases. And with 10 seats up for grabs — representing nearly a quarter of the county’s Common Pleas bench — voters had a once-in-a-generation chance to shape the everyday practice of justice.

The wins by Henry-Taylor, Howsie, Sizemore and Watson will essentially double the number of Black judges in the county court system. Henry-Taylor says that is an important development.

“We know that the perception of justice is sometimes important,” she said. “Having different backgrounds will change the perception of the court and give people an assurance that their voice is heard in the system.”

But the winning slate as a whole “will be engaged in the community. You’ll have people who are going to be sensitive to what’s going on," she said.

“There are a lot of experienced lawyers in Allegheny County, so there's a lot of qualified people,” Henry-Taylor said. “But I think voters wanted well-rounded people, and that's what they are getting."

Henry-Taylor said Tuesday’s outcome might change not just the practice of justice but the practice of politics as well. The “Slate of 8” was backed by a handful of grassroots progressive groups who often have worked outside the traditional party structure. Henry-Taylor herself decided not to seek the Democratic Party's endorsement last spring, a move thought to be risky for a judicial candidate.

But on Tuesday night, she hailed “the energy of so many people who’ve started Indivisible and all kinds of progressive groups. They saw that the party didn't always support people like [state Rep. and congressional candidate] Summer Lee. So they created their own path, and I think that work has helped us.”

What also helped, she said, was a hunger on the part of voters for change and substantive reform: “After George Floyd and the unrest in our country, people wanted to hear, ‘How is bail handled? How do we have inequality in our courts?'"

"One thing you hear in Allegheny County a lot is that judicial races are low-information races,” she added. “This [election] proved the opposite was true."

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.