by Christian Morrow, Courier Staff Writer
With the state senate’s recent 47-0 confirmation of Elliot Howsie’s nomination to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, he becomes the first Black male judge to join the court since Judge Joseph K. Williams’ appointment in 2008. It also marks the first time in more than 20 years that three Black male judges have served on the court simultaneously.
Howsie’s confirmation was welcomed by local politicians and community advocates alike. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who appointed Howsie as the county’s first African American Chief Public Defender in 2012, said it is great.
“I know that Elliot will bring the same fire, drive and dedication that he showed in the Public Defender’s office to the bench,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “He also brings his perspective as a Wilkinsburg native, as the son of a janitor, as a man who has seen the generational impact of the justice system in our community, and as a public servant who has worked in every sector of the justice system. He has dedicated his life to service and has consistently sought opportunities to better our community.”
Speaking with the New Pittsburgh Courier while attending the May 9 African American Chamber of Commerce Candidates Forum, Howsie said he was extremely grateful to Governor Tom Wolf for the nomination and to the senate for his confirmation. Now the only question is in which division Howsie will serve—civil, criminal, family or orphans’ court.
He reiterated that his preference is to work in either criminal or family division and said he has discussed it with President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, and it would likely be family division. Judge Clark’s office said she cannot yet announce her decision as some details have to be worked out. Howsie fills the vacancy created when Judge Donna Jo McDaniel stepped down in January.
Black Political Empowerment Project Chair Tim Stevens said Howsie’s confirmation is huge, noting that when he was younger there were upwards of 20 Black judges on Common Pleas Court.
“We’ve regressed in that respect,” Stevens said. “Part of it is the expense; it costs a lot of money to run a countywide race and Black candidates are often at a disadvantage when raising funds. So I am continuing to urge both the Republican and Democratic parties to endorse more Black judicial candidates.”
Stevens said the need for Black judges is critical because of the large number of defendants coming through the court system—particularly criminal court—are African Americans. A judge like Howsie, Stevens said, who grew up in Wilkinsburg and went to Central Catholic High School, has a level of cultural sensitivity. White jurists, no matter how well intentioned, do not, Stevens said. And Howsie said as much himself when he thanked the governor for his nomination.
“Having grown up in a lower-income community in Wilkinsburg, I know how the criminal justice system impacts the lives of the people who most often grace the front steps of our courts,” he said. “Through my upbringing, my work experience on both sides of the courtroom, and my time in social services, I know the decisions made by judges have a generational impact on the lives of people in our county.”
Stevens thinks Howsie’s sensitivity to that impact should be displayed in criminal court.
“Not to step on Judge Clark’s first judicial assignment—which is itself historic—I think should be in criminal court,” he said. “Plus it’s an equity matter. White judges are spread through all the divisions. Why not Blacks?”
Currently there are no Black judges in the criminal division. The last Black person to serve in that division was Williams, who is now in orphans’ court. All the other Black judges serve in family division.
Stevens did concede, however, that given the nature of family court—handling cases involving juvenile probation, restorative justice, divorce, separation, child custody, and domestic abuse—Howsie could make a positive generational impact.
“That’s why we need more like him,” Stevens said.
Follow @NewPghCourier on Twitter https://twitter.com/NewPghCourier