Lisa Middleman, who ran an unsuccessful 2019 campaign for Allegheny County District Attorney that nevertheless rallied criminal-justice reformers to her cause, now hopes to hear cases rather than argue them. She intends to run in what will likely be a wide-open contest for one of the open seats on Allegheny County’s Court of Common Pleas this year.
“I have to find change in any way I possibly can,” Middleman said. “Reform is not only an avenue that’s available to a prosecutor or defense attorneys. The courts can do many, many things to try to change the overall philosophy of the legal system. In the criminal and juvenile courts, it could mean exploring innovative sentencing options. It could mean refusing to set cash bail, limiting probation sentences to lengths that [are] actually useful, finding alternative means of funding the courts that don’t involve relying on poor people to pay exorbitant fines and costs.”
There will be at least eight judicial spots on the May 18 primary ballot – about one-quarter of the county’s judicial roster. And while such a large number of judgeships would attract considerable interest in any election cycle, some crimnial-justice reform advocates see an opportunity for a generational shift on the bench -- and this year’s openings come at a time when efforts to rethink criminal justice are at a peak.
Dozens of candidates of varying stripes are said to be pondering a judicial run, though many will likely drop out before the primary. Such races typically attract little attention and less interest. But the judicial field may attract more notice this year because several of the candidates are, like Middleman, likely to espouse a philosophy that seeks to move toward a more expansive view of the justice system – one that relies less on strictly punitive measures.
Candidates who have either confirmed or are rumored to be considering a run include Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner and Mik Pappas, a magistrate district justice whose successful 2017 campaign against incumbent Ron Costa was the harbinger for a number of progressive wins over entrenched Democratic politicians up and down the ballot.
Pappas, who opposes the use of cash bail among other reforms, has not formally announced a run, and declined comment for this story. But Wagner confirmed her intention to run this week, though she has not formally announced.
Wagner, who also served as a state Representative, says she has already worked on criminal-justice issues in her capacity as member of an oversight board for the Allegheny County Jail.
“Some of the best things I’ve accomplished as controller have involved working to get juveniles their own pod in the jail, getting non-violent pregnant women out of it,” she said.
Wagner has also had firsthand experience with the justice system, after she and her husband were arrested after a hotel altercation with police in Detroit. Wagner’s husband was acquitted; she pled no contest to a minor charge.
“That experience certainly gave me an understanding for how poor every part of their criminal-justice process was,” said Wagner. “People say that couldn’t happen here, but I’m not so sure.”
Such questions have become more pressing, after a summer in which protests over police misconduct, and racial inequity throughout the justice system, were held across Allegheny County and the United States. And even in the halls of power, there has been some bipartisan consensus that a hardline approach to criminal justice – especially for drug-related or nonviolent offenses – is costly, ineffective, and damaging especially to impoverished communities and communities of color.
“For a very long time, people thought they wanted judges who were law and order, lock everybody up,” said Middleman. “I think that’s why so many former prosecutors ran for judge. But we’ve done that for a very long time, and that has not worked. … I believe that finally the general public is ready to say, you know what, addiction does have something to do with criminal behavior. Mental illness does have something to do with criminal behavior. Poverty has something to do with it.”
Middleman herself has served as a public defender, and she has offered free representation to Black Lives Matter activists charged in last summer’s protests.
“I've crafted legal arguments for years that have expressed the ravages of violence, mental health problems, addiction, poverty, joblessness, homelessness can have on people and their ability to comport their behavior with the law. And I've made legal arguments to kind of express those concerns within a framework that allows for the law to give credence to them successfully so it can be done. There are places in the law that can give respect to human struggles that people go through.”
Other defense attorneys may see a similar path to a judgeship. Giuseppe Rosselli, who has been a local defense attorney for the past two decades, says he’s undertaking his own judicial bid.
“What we currently do is we put someone on a period of probation and say, ‘Good luck,’” he said. “And inevitably, they come back, and the penalties start becoming more severe. When you put someone on probation, you are limiting their earning capacity and where they can live. So we're left with not just a criminal penalty but a social penalty. And the social economic penalties have a much greater economic impact.”
“I'm not just saying that to the electorate,” Rosselli added. “I'm saying that every day in court. I've spent 20 years trying to push this message, that there's another way other than jail and probation.”
This would be Rosselli’s first run, and negotiating the political landscape in a judicial contest can be tricky.
Under the state’s judicial ethics code, judges are expressly bared from “mak[ing] pledges, promises or commitments that are inconsistent with the impartial performance … of judicial office.” And while it is acceptable to make “statements or announcements of personal views on legal, political or other issue, “a judge should acknowledge the overarching judicial obligation to apply and uphold the law, without regard to his or her personal views.”
Traditionally, judicial candidates have often followed those rules by limiting their campaigns to a discussion of their professional attainments, often citing local Bar Association ratings and – in heavily Democratic Allegheny County – their endorsement by the county’s Democratic committee.
The Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s endorsement – a stamp of approval by committee members – can be costly: It is expected to cost several thousand dollars for a judicial candidate just to be considered. And the results can be controversial, with progressive candidates sometimes shunned. But those who obtain the party’s backing are listed on “slate cards” given to voters; in a race where voters may know very little about the candidates, that can make a difference.
Wagner, long a fixture in Democratic circles, says she will seek the endorsement. Rosselli and Middleman aren’t sure.
Middleman said that while “there are people I admire tremendously on the committee,” the cost of seeking the endorsement is “exorbitant. … Given how difficult it will be to raise money, it's going to be hard to turn over a big chunk of that to the Democratic Committee.”
While judicial candidates are barred from endorsing candidates seeking other offices, they can support fellow candidates seeking a spot on the same bench. Political insiders say a slate of like-minded candidates could emerge from the field of would-be judicial reformers, though it’s not clear what form that could take.
Middleman and campaign watchers predict that local progressive groups, like the UNITE PAC established by state Rep. Summer Lee, will back some contenders. Other efforts are already underway to put criminal-justice reform on the ballot, including an Alliance for Police Accountability bid to put a countywide referendum before voters ending solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail.
Middleman says that, partly due to recent controversies involving the US Supreme Court, “I would expect to see a lot of groups maybe that have not always become involved in judicial races.” But she says an interest in reform isn’t limited to the political left: During her campaign for District Attorney, she said, “I talked to so many people [and] there were so many people out there who wanted things to change.”