Judiciary Committee has continued practice of rating judicial candidates for over 45 years

May 21, 2021
President’s Message By Elizabeth Hughes

This year, the Judiciary Committee of the Allegheny County Bar Association was tasked with evaluating 45 candidates running for judge for the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, Superior Court of Pennsylvania, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The ACBA’s Judiciary Committee began rating judicial candidates in the 1970s and has continued this practice for over 45 years. While the Judiciary Committee has been providing this service to the voting public for many years, most people might not realize the time and effort that is committed to this task and why it is vitally important.  

The Judiciary Committee is currently comprised of 24 members who are elected by the ACBA membership and serve three-year terms. This year was especially challenging in 2021 not just due to the sheer number of candidates running for seats, but also because of the pandemic and the necessity to go virtual while still maintaining procedural integrity and confidentiality.

Under the ever-capable leadership of Judiciary Committee chair, Mary Jo Rebelo, the committee successfully evaluated 45 candidates running for judge. The ratings process spanned months and involved countless hours dedicated by the committee members to ensure a fair and thorough process. As an illustration of the level of commitment exhibited by the committee members, consider the following: The Judiciary Committee held 12 meetings to interview candidates, each meeting lasting no less than 4 hours each. Candidates submitted written applications that were reviewed by the committee members in advance and committee members spent countless hours meeting with colleagues and references for the candidates prior to the interviews. As lawyers, most of us understand the significant value of this time when we think of it in terms of billable hours. The sacrifices of these committee members become even more crystal clear through this lens. It is time away from work and from family to provide this service to the public. 

So why does the ACBA do this? Probably every attorney who is reading this has been asked at least once by friends and family members, “Who should I vote for in this judicial election?” As attorneys, we are uniquely situated to be able to answer this question because these individuals are our peers. The general population does not have the opportunity, probably to their good fortune, to interact with members of the bar and bench on any kind of frequent basis. However, we regularly interact with each other in courtrooms, conference rooms, in trials, during motions court, in negotiations, and at bar associationevents and other functions. Lawyers observe each other every day as we interface with other members of the bar and bench. We are knowledgeable about the legal acumen and the reputation and temperament of our colleagues. Who better to provide this information about us than us? Given the choice, I think most lawyers would take being rated by a panel of our peers over those who do not know or understand what we do every single day to serve the profession and our clients.  

To that end and to further ensure that candidates are actually being rated by their peers, the Judiciary Committee continues to recommend changes and improvements to guarantee the fairness of the process. One of the most recent changes that will be instituted this year is an expansion of the committee. The number of committee members will increase from 24 to 33 over the next several years through the ACBA elections process. The expansion is a result of changing the demographics of the committee so that there is representation across every field of practice and with a specific commitment to increasing diversity on the committee. These changes have been several years in the making and have been carefully and thoughtfully considered. Beginning with the ACBA elections in 2021, 11 individuals will be elected each year to each serve a three-year term. One individual will be selected from each of the following practice areas: Appellate, Criminal, Civil, Family, and Probate & Trust. Additionally, there will be three diverse seats, one young lawyers’ seat and two at-large seats. The ACBA is committed to making sure that when candidates walk in to be interviewed, that the process is fair and equitable and that they feel represented in the faces around the room.  

As lawyers, we know how important it is to get this right. We know that judges have the power to affect our daily lives, for the greater or the lesser. Every day, we as lawyers watch as judges make determinations about custody, whether someone will walk free or be incarcerated, or whether a victim will be compensated for pain and suffering faced due to the negligence of another. Many members of the public do not see this or feel that weight until they are standing in a courtroom, waiting for a judge to decide their fate or that of their child or other family member. That is why the service that the Judiciary Committee provides is so important and affords the public the means to make informed decisions. If you are interested in learning more about the Judiciary Committee and its work, reach out to the chair and think about how you can get involved by running for a seat on the committee in the 2022 ACBA elections.

Update from Elizabeth Hughes on Bench-Bar Conference

Dear Fellow ACBA Members,

To say it has been a challenging year – both in the ACBA and in society in general – would be an understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it unique circumstances that no one could have predicted, causing significant changes in all areas of our lives. Last year, as a result of the pandemic, we had to cancel the Bench-Bar Conference for the first time in 58 years, which was beyond heartbreaking, as anyone who knows me understands my commitment to the Bench-Bar Conference.

We have been getting many questions from members about the status of the 2021 Bench-Bar Conference. The Bench-Bar Committee and the ACBA leadership have been in continuing discussions for months about the possibility of trying to host anin person Bench-Bar. We had held on to hope that we could find some viable alternative, however with the uncertainty of the restrictions, the months of planning required to host this Conference, and with June on the horizon, it became increasingly clear that time was not on our side.

While we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, as more people in our region are getting vaccinated and COVID-related numbers are reducing, the timing of coordinating such a large event with the clear challenges of keeping everyone safe is just not possible at this time. I am writing to you to confirm that we will be canceling the 2021 Bench-Bar Conference.

That being said, I hope you share my sense of optimism that we have turned the corner with this pandemic. I encourage our members to get vaccinated, if you haven’t done so already. If we all do our part, we can return to a more “normal” life sooner rather than later and gear up for things like the 2022 Bench-Bar Conference. I plan to see each and every one of you there next year!

I sincerely thank you all for your support, kind words and understanding during this past year while we have been apart, and I look forward to seeing you all again soon.

Elizabeth Hughes, ACBA President

Members encouraged to take part in “Bar Week”

Dear ACBA Members,

Now that May is here, summer is right around the corner. That’s the time of year when we are used to gathering together in-person for CLE courses, networking happy hours and heading to Seven Springs for the Bench-Bar Conference. While we’re not ready to safely gather in-person just yet, we wanted to offer ACBA members something special to kick off summer, in lieu of Bench-Bar.

That’s why we are presenting “ACBA Bar Week” June 14-18. During that week, we will be offering 13 Live Webinar CLE courses on a variety of topics, all at a $5 per credit discount thanks to Fragasso Financial Advisors. We’ll also present several informative Town Hall Meetings with judges from various courts, and we’ll present networking events – including virtual trivia night and a beer tasting – so that we can enjoy some socialization as well.

I hope you’ll be able to join us for at least something during Bar Week. It really will be the ACBA’s “Biggest Week of the Summer.” Check out the full schedule at ACBA.org/BarWeek.

David Blaner, Executive Director