Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania
County of Allegheny
Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania

Message from the President Judge

As a former prosecutor, lawyer and judge, I take pride in the American system of justice, including the Constitutional protections that all citizens are afforded. I still have faith in our justice system and I am particularly proud of the justice system here in Allegheny County. We are well-respected throughout the United States and we are never satisfied with doing things the way we have always done them. We continue to work to improve our system of justice by making data-informed decisions, by implementing best practices and by working collaboratively with law enforcement and other stakeholders.

Notwithstanding my pride in our justice system, recent events, including the overdue acknowledgement and celebration of Juneteenth National Freedom Day, and the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, have led me to the decision that the Court must consciously and publicly address the waning public confidence in the justice system amidst the growing and compelling evidence that persons of color are at a greater risk of death or serious bodily injury at the hands of the police and are more likely to languish in the child welfare and juvenile and criminal justice systems than white persons.

These concerns raise questions of whether the justice system in America, including Allegheny County, is actually fair, whether the citizens perceive that our system of justice is fair, and whether, despite our best efforts, the American system of justice is replete with racial and ethnic disparities or operates under the cloud of systemic racism.

While judges have a duty to uphold the law and, in many cases, impose sanctions and consequences on those who violate the law, we have an equal duty to promote public confidence in the judiciary as an independent and unbiased institution. This means that Allegheny County Courts must be at the forefront in addressing these issues. We must undergo an ongoing and critical evaluation of how justice is administered in Allegheny County. It means we must openly acknowledge and address our flaws, rather than rely on the powers and privileges that may allow us to turn a blind eye to them. Please understand that our history is calling us to work collaboratively and inclusively to make positive changes in the justice system that will benefit all citizens.

Engraved above the front entrance of the United States Supreme Court Building, is the phrase “Equal Justice Under Law”. The words stem from the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which was adopted on July 9, 1868, in the wake of the Civil War, and which, among other things, granted citizenship to former slaves. This phrase has shaped American jurisprudence and is considered the gold standard of justice.

Despite the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, our history has demonstrated that justice has not always been equal for many Americans, particularly for racial and ethnic minorities, women, persons with disabilities, those who do not fit into what society has decided are traditional gender roles, and those living in poverty. What we need to do is ensure that we develop a justice system that not only promotes equality, but ensures equity.

To truly achieve justice, the proverbial scales of justice must be balanced. We must take into account the uneven playing field on which racial and ethnic minorities, those who do not squarely fit into traditional gender roles, other disadvantaged persons, and the poor enter the justice system. The public must see members of our local judiciary and court staff working with urgency to attain this goal in equal solidarity with them, with other justice-related institutions, and with each other. The Fifth Judicial District must rise to this generational challenge.

To the hundreds of dedicated civil servants and servant leaders of the Fifth Judicial District, please know that as I acknowledge these pressing questions, I also acknowledge the sacrifices you have made in the interest of serving the public as well as the stress and trauma that many of you endure in your positions. We are fortunate to have judges and staff, police officers, lawyers, victim advocates, and others who are dedicated to public service, who are committed to justice, who demonstrate a strong work ethic, and who possess a keen sense of fairness and respect for humankind. Our Court has been working hard to address the issues of racial and ethnic disparities and systematic racism in the justice system. Some examples of this are:

  • Utilization of the PA Detention Risk Assessment, which has significantly reduced the number of juveniles held in pre-trial detention;
  • Utilization of the Youth Level of Service/Case Management Inventory to help identify the risk factors for recidivism, which has significantly reduced the number of delinquent youth in out-of-home placements;
  • Utilization of diversionary programs to prevent entry into the juvenile justice system;
  • Establishment of a robust Department of Pretrial Services of Allegheny County;
  • Utilization of treatment courts (Mental Health Court, Drug Court, Veteran’s Court, PRIDE Court) to divert individuals from incarceration to treatment;
  • Establishment of Housing Court to reduce evictions, and improve judicial access through a Help Desk designed to assist litigants by providing information, forms, and referral resources;
  • Implementation of a Language Access Plan to promote equal access for limited or non-English speakers and deaf/hard of hearing court users;
  • Fostering collaboration between Magisterial District Judges and community stakeholders to educate the community regarding procedures in landlord-tenant cases;
  • The MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge with a focus on meaningfully addressing the racial and ethnic inequities in the justice system;
  • The significant reduction of the population in the Allegheny County Jail and the continued efforts to reduce the population;
  • Implementation of Anti-Discrimination and Implicit Bias Training consistent with the 5th Judicial District’s Non-Discrimination and Equal Employment Opportunity Policy that prohibits all forms of discrimination because of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age, disability, or religion;
  • Prompt investigation and redress of Non-Discrimination and EEO Policy violations to ensure that all individuals including employees, applicants for employment, litigants, witnesses, jurors, and court volunteers are treated in a dignified, civil, respectful, and non-discriminatory manner;
  • Collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics, the Allegheny County Executive, and the Allegheny Department of Human Services to address criminal justice reform.

We have made progress, but the struggle is ongoing. We are committed to collecting and examining the data to identify disparities throughout all divisions of the justice system and will continue to examine our processes and procedures that might contribute to racial and ethnic injustice.

It may be difficult to know where to begin in the quest to create a system of equal justice for all. Consequently, I propose that in order to achieve a system that is both equal and equitable, we begin with a thorough and critical examination of our own mission to the public that we serve. We must have a mission that sets forth the Court’s responsibility to the public and we must evaluate everything that we do in light of our mission.

The mission will conspicuously appear on our website to remind the public that they have a right to justice that is free of bias and that the Court is firmly committed to addressing and eradicating ethnic and racial disparity, implicit bias, and systemic racism in our system of justice. Accordingly, I have asked a diverse group of citizens in Allegheny County and staff of the Fifth Judicial District to assist me with creating a mission for the Fifth Judicial District that truly sets forth our responsibility to all members of the public that we serve.

I am proud to serve as the President Judge of the Fifth Judicial District and thankful for the opportunity to work with judges and court staff who are so deeply committed to public service. In the near future, I look forward to presenting the new mission for the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania.

We will continue to examine our processes and procedures to demonstrate our commitment to equal justice under law and to keep us squarely on the path that will enable us to reach this goal. We will do our best to earn and keep your respect, and to hold ourselves accountable to the public that we serve.

I would like to thank the following people for their input, contribution to, and review of this message: Chris Connors, Angharad Stock, Lisa Herbert, Melinda Sala, Judge Mik Pappas, Lisette McCormick (Interbranch Commission of Gender Racial and Ethnic Fairness) Elizabeth Hughes (ACBA President), and the Administrative Team for the Fifth Judicial District.