- Jann Chirdon
Women and Justice
Women for the Future Pittsburgh does not endorse judicial candidates; however, it is important to understand women are critically underrepresented in courts in Pennsylvania. In fact, only 29% of our judges are female. When women appear in court for divorce, child custody, child support, domestic violence claims, rape and other violent crimes they are often met with the implicit biases of male judges. There is also often the belief that THEY, the women advocating for themselves and their families, must have done something wrong. In addition, there are far fewer African American or Hispanic female judges than their white counterparts.
In 1930, Sara Soffel was the first appointed female judge in Pennsylvania, in Allegheny County. When she left law school no law firm would hire her. She set up her own office, learned to take shorthand, type, and run the office while becoming an exceptional attorney. In 1922 Sara became the first woman to serve as an assistant City of Pittsburgh solicitor. It was unheard of for a female to stand for election as a judicial candidate; she was first appointed, and then reelected in two additional cycles. (Sara is not related to Kate Soffel, the warden’s wife!)
In 1961 Judge Anne X. Alpern was the first woman to sit on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. She was also the first female attorney general in Pennsylvania. Governor David Lawrence appointed her to the court in 1961; however, she had to stand for election two years later and narrowly lost. The Pennsylvania bar has endowed an annual Anne X. Alpern award in recognition of an outstanding elected woman who is a member of the bar.
Juanita Kidd Stout was the first African American judge in the nation. Judge Stout was the first black female to serve on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. She was appointed to the bench by Gov. Milton Shapp.
Genevieve Blatt was the first woman in Pennsylvania to serve on Commonwealth Court. She was appointed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in 1972.
In 1988 Doris Smith Ribner became the first African American to be elected to the Commonwealth Court. Later Judge Smith-Ribner did not seek retention, and ran for Pennsylvania Lt. Governor, losing that race in 2010.
In 1989, Cynthia Baldwin became the first black woman elected to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Baldwin served in this office for sixteen years. Then, in 2006, she was appointed to the state Supreme Court by Gov. Ed Rendell. She was not permitted to run for a permanent seat on the court.
Today there are three female justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, nine female judges on Superior Court, and six on Commonwealth Court. Often the argument is “look to our appellate courts, women dominate”; however, it is a smoke and mirror argument. Pennsylvania has 311 male judges and 134 females (currently 16 vacancies). That “full house” at the top is an inaccurate snapshot of our court’s underrepresentation by women and women of color.
Currently there are only four African American judges in Allegheny County. Kim Berkeley Clark presently serves as President Judge.
In this election cycle there are nine openings on Allegheny County Common Pleas court, two openings on Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, and one on the Superior Court. There are three women seeking to win two seats on Commonwealth and two women vying for the opening on Superior Court. There is one female running for the Supreme Court and is unopposed in that Primary race.
It is important to remember the words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when asked how many women on the United States Supreme Court would be fair, she simply said nine.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court was a provincial court established in 1687. So, until the 1961, all the justices were men. If it was alright for 274 years that our appellate courts were all male, we shouldn’t find it objectionable that our courts could be “manned” by all female judges and justices.