From early on in her career, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kim Berkeley Clark often expressed her fondness for hats. Since then she has worn many, as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office and, after her appointment to the bench in 1999, as trial judge and as the nationally-honored administrator of the family division courts.
Now, she is wearing yet another hat—that of President Judge of the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania, where she will oversee not only all the divisions of Common Pleas Court, but also all the magisterial district courts—and she is the first African American to ever hold the post. She was sworn in just two days after Christmas.
“Yeah, it was a great present. For me it is a big deal,” she said. “It’s a lot of responsibility and I’m excited at the prospect of leading the court, but the first year is going to be a big learning curve, just trying to get the lay of the land.”
That means meeting with all the judges in the civil, criminal, and family courts, as well as the prosecutors and public defenders, to get their input and gauge their needs. At some point, it will mean reducing her caseload, but only slightly, she said.
Clark, who last year won the William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence for her innovative work developing a “trauma-informed” courthouse program that provides supportive services and resources to children and families facing custody issues, said she would like to see how much of that could be replicated in the other court divisions.
Some of that work has already been started in the criminal division, she said.
“The treatment courts are a great example of reducing the adversarial nature of court and they’ve been supported and embraced by Judge Manning, Judge Cashman and Judge Zottola to name a few,” she said in an exclusive interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier. “I’ll be looking to build on that.”
Clark said she also wants to update the courts’ technology on several fronts—not just to support the judicial staffers who make sure the judges have everything they need in court, and prosecuting and defense attorneys, but also defendants, plaintiffs and litigants—especially those with little to no experience with making a court appearance.
“I want to have someone evaluate our website to see how user-friendly it is because there are a lot of things people not familiar with going to court might not think of,” she said. “Taking medication—did they bring it; dressing for court; judge’s scheduling preferences—does 9 a.m. mean 9 a.m. or will you be sitting for a while, having snacks if you do; making arrangements for kids if you’ll be there all day. These are practical things.”
There’s one other thing Clark thinks people should know when they go to court—what pushes the judge’s buttons.
“What pushes them over the edge—it could be anything,” she said. “One is cell phones. For me it’s a minor irritation, but for some, it really does push them over the edge.”
Clark, 62, was also the first African American female to serve as president of the county Bar Association. First appointed to the bench by Gov. Tom Ridge in March 1999, Clark won a full 10-year term the following November. Prior to her appointment, she served for 16 years as an assistant and deputy district attorney, prosecuting more than 150 jury trials, including cases involving homicide, sexual assault and child abuse.
She serves as chair of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission and is a past president of the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges. A Wilkinsburg native, she graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in French. Clark earned her legal degree from Duquesne University School of Law.
Clark is also a past recipient of the Homer S. Brown Award from the NAACP Pittsburgh Branch, the William H. Moore Award for Excellence from the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Drum Major for Justice Award from the Homer S. Brown Law Association, and in 2008 was named one of the New Pittsburgh Courier’s 50 Women of Influence.
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