Members of the Black Political Empowerment Project, the NAACP Pittsburgh Branch and Black Women for Positive Change have asked Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to appoint an African American to fill a vacancy on the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court created by the retirement of Judge Donna Jo McDaniel.
During a press conference at Freedom Unlimited in the Hill District, March 11, B-PEP Chair Tim Stevens read from a letter sent to Gov. Wolf that morning noting only three of the 43 common pleas judges are Black (Kim Berkeley Clark, Dwayne Woodruff, Joseph K. Williams III), and none of them serve in the criminal division despite the large number of African American defendants who appear there.
“The sad news is the current number of African American judges who sit on the common pleas bench is significantly less than the seven who were on the bench in Allegheny County in the 1970s…we have regressed,” he said. “We understand that you have the authority to appoint (McDaniel’s) replacement on the court. We ask that you take this opportunity to be on the right side of history and turn the tide of a lack of diversity on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas by appointing an African American to this important seat.”
Joy Maxberry Woodruff said that as an African American judge on the county bench, her husband Dwayne can and does turn around the lives of some Black youth who appear before him.
“My husband was just named supervising judge of juvenile division by the state Supreme Court not because he’s been there a long time, others were there longer—he’s been named that because he’s effective,” she said. “The children look up to him. He’s influenced young people to go on the right path.”
NAACP President Richard A. Stewart Jr. agreed.
“We need more African Americans sitting on the court,” he said. “We have a qualified individual here that needs to be given consideration. We’re asking the governor to do that, and possibly be placed in that slot that’s available now.”
Stewart was referring to Rosemary Crawford, the 30-year veteran attorney who ran for common pleas judge in 2013, 2015, and 2017. She’s a graduate of Georgetown University Law School and was rated “highly qualified” by the Allegheny County Bar Association.
“I’ve received more interest and support this year than ever, I believe, because of my past efforts and my community service. But nothing like this has ever happened before—being mentioned by leaders in Pittsburgh to the governor. I’m very grateful,” Crawford said. “I’m getting more interest with each run and that’s important for a grassroots campaign. Sometimes you just have to be committed, not give up. Because enough people have given up on our community. I’m not going to be on that list.”
Carmen Robinson, attorney and clerk for Common Pleas President Judge Clark, said without a major party endorsement, it is nearly impossible to win a race for judge. An appointment—in this case, for two years—would make that much easier because the judge then runs for retention as an incumbent.
“If you’re not getting endorsed by the Democratic Committee—and there’s a fee for that—it’s an uphill battle,” said Robinson. “You have to do your regular job while you campaign, don’t usually have professional fundraisers to bring in the money, and you have to get the Black committee people to vote for the candidate and not necessarily with the party.”
She added there are actually two openings on common pleas court, she added. The one created by McDaniel’s January retirement, and one already on the ballot.
“I think it’s critical to have a person of color on the bench,” she said.
The Allegheny County Democratic Committee, Stevens noted, apparently doesn’t think so. At the March 10 party endorsement meeting, the committee voted against county Public Defender Elliott Howsie, the only Black candidate seeking the endorsement.
“The Democratic Party had a chance to do this yesterday—they didn’t,” said Stevens. “And let’s be honest most Black people are Democrats. We are much more loyal to the Democratic Party than the Democrats are to Black people.”
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