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Simmons blazed trail to bench, equality

| Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, 1:11 a.m.

Tim Lewis was leaving Stanford Stadium on Oct. 22, 2011, when the Pittsburgh native met up with Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana.

The two, who had never met, engaged in small talk until Lewis mentioned that he had succeeded Monongahela native Paul Simmons on the federal court bench.

“When I mentioned Paul Simmons, that meant something to him,” Lewis recalled. “He said, ‘Thank you so much for talking to me.'”

Simmons will be featured in an oral history to be presented by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania 3 p.m. Thursday in Courtroom 8C in Pittsburgh.

At 91, Simmons is in poor health and will not be able to attend the event.

Although the annual oral histories of retired senior judges usually are unveiled in April, the feature on Simmons is being released this week to coincide with Black History Month.

Free copies will be available after the program, by request, through the clerk of courts by calling 412-208-7468.

Historic roots

The Simmons family traces its place in Washington County history back to the 18th century, settling in what is now West Pike Township.

Matilda Smith married Jacob Simmons, a Union Army veteran, and the couple settled on Marne Avenue in Monongahela.

Their son, Joseph Simmons, served as jury commissioner and on city council in the late 19th century. His son, Paul Simmons, was born in 1921 in Monongahela.

Paul Simmons had just graduated from the Harvard Law School when he accepted a teaching position at South Carolina State College – an all-black institution – because he wanted to learn about the American South.

While there, he encouraged and advised his students on where and how to initiate the first federal legal challenge to the Constitutional doctrine of Separate but Equal.

According to his biography, Simmons told students that the plaintiffs could not be intimidated into withdrawing their case, and the suit had to be raised in a district so poverty stricken that it could not financially support a dual and equal school system.

That argument was adopted by Harold Bouleware – an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – in the historic case Briggs v. Elliot, which challenged racial segregation in Summerton, S.C.

It was the first of the five cases – and the only one in the Deep South – combined into Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

In the latter, the U.S. Supreme Court ended racial segregation in U.S. public schools.

Simmons was a “strong believer in human rights and a strong defender of the powerless,” said his wife, Gwendolyn Simmons.

He overcame

After graduating with honors from Monongahela High School in 1939, Paul Simmons went to work for the construction company his father and uncle operated.

Denied a raise, he took a job in 1941 with the Pennsylvania Railroad in its Shire Oaks freight car repair shop. Badly injured in an accident, Simmons' right leg was amputated above the right knee on Valentine's Day 1942.

The Pennsylvania Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation granted him a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, from which he graduated in 1946. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1949.

“He realized with the loss of his leg he wasn't going to work in construction, and so he went to law school,” Gwendolyn Simmons said.

The seed was planted for Paul Simmons' law career when he was a youth in Monongahela, delivering the Pittsburgh Courier – once the nation's most widely distributed newspaper for black Americans.

Paul Simmons regularly discussed the news with potential customers, taking part in conversations and debates about equality, his wife noted.

“He had a keen sense of justice,” she said. “One of his strong beliefs was about the Constitution and about the American system, which he said may have faults, but there is no greater system. And the Constitution gives us an opportunity to correct those faults.”

Paul Simmons served as a professor of law at North Carolina College of Law from 1952 to 1956, before coming home to the Mon Valley, where he practiced law from 1956 to 1973.

Herman Bigi was a Washington County assistant district attorney when he first faced Simmons in court in 1969.

“He was one of the best trial lawyers that I ever came up against in court,” Bigi said. “There was no one that worked harder than Paul. His office was like grand central station. People waited until the wee hours just to see him.”

In 1970, Bigi and Simmons became partners in the firm Hormell, Tempest, Simmons, Bigi and Melenyzer, which had offices in California, Charleroi, Monongahela and Washington, Pa.

Then-Washington County Common Pleas Judge Charles Sweet called the firm “The Thundering Herd.”

“We literally controlled the county,” Bigi said. “We literally controlled the criminal and civil trial list.”

Bigi recalls attending a Fourth of July parade in Canonsburg, where he saw Simmons at an accident scene, investigating a case.

“Paul did not know a holiday,” Bigi said. “He worked day and night.

“Paul would be in his office until wee hours of the morning, then he would get up and run to federal court in Pittsburgh and try a case. He would often call me at 2 o'clock, 3 o'clock in morning to discuss a case.”

In 1973, Gov. Milton Shapp appointed Paul Simmons to Washington County Common Pleas Court. In 1975, he ran for a full, 10-year term, earning the nominations of both parties.

“He listened to both sides,” Bigi said of Paul Simmons. “When you walked into his courtroom, you would get treated the same whether you were the little man or a corporation. He'll go down in history as one of the best judges in Washington County. He was the model of what a judge should be.

“Everyone loved that man and admired that man as I did.”

In April 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Simmons to the federal bench. As was the case in Washington County, Paul Simmons was the first black man to serve as judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

He was also the first man to undergo the merit selection process for the federal bench.

Made a senior judge in 1990, he retired in 1991.

Family man

Gwendolyn and Paul Simmons met in South Carolina. He was a newly hired law professor at South Carolina State College, and she was a teacher at Allen University in Columbia, S.C.

They went out with mutual friends after a football game. The group discussion ultimately led to a debate between the future couple, which was married in September 1950.

“He accused me of being too liberal, and I accused him of being too conservative,” Gwendolyn Simmons said. “But I thought, ‘This is a man who believed a woman could have a brain.' I grew up in a family where, at our dinner table, we were allowed to have civil debates.

“We could disagree, but he let me speak my mind.”

Later in married life, Paul Simmons asked his wife to attend meetings for community organizations in which they were involved. Paul Simmons was civic minded, and he respected his wife's ability to represent the couple.

The advocate

Paul Simmons always carried a checkbook and a pen in his jacket, Bigi recalled.

“If someone needed money, he would give them a check,” Bigi said. “If you did not have money, he would represent you anyway.”

“He never turned down anyone, whether they had money or not,” Gwendolyn Simmons added.

For years, the couple had season tickets to the Nixon Theater, but Gwendolyn Simmons was never sure if her husband would be able to attend.

“He would say, “Gwen, how can you enjoy the play when there's this old lady about to lose her home?' And he did it pro bono.”

In the legal profession, the term means to provide service at no charge.

On family vacations, Paul Simmons enjoyed riding with his family. But once in a hotel room, he worked on cases.

When his daughter, Gwendolyn D. Simmons, told her father she planned to go to law school, he discouraged her.

“He told her, ‘You know how hard I work. Do you want to be a workaholic?' his wife recalled.

Undaunted, she followed in her father's footsteps and is now an attorney for Bank of America.

The couple also has a son, Paul J. Simmons, and a daughter, Ann Marie Simmons Scott.

The elder Gwendolyn Simmons said her husband's reputation for championing for the little man served him well as a judge. She has always admired her husband's honesty and forthrightness.

“He always had the courage to fight for the those things he believed in,” Gwendolyn Simmons said. “He never let any setbacks stop him. He accepted challenges. He wouldn't allow himself to be limited.

“I admire the strength of his convictions he had to fight for those things he believed in, whether for himself or for others.”

Blazing trails

Lewis succeeded Simmons on the federal bench.

A former federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Lewis now is an attorney with the law firm of Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis LLP, where he serves as the co-chairman of the firm's appellate practice.

Asked to discuss Paul Simmons' career, Lewis said, “One word – trailblazer.”

“He blazed a trail for many to follow,” Lewis said. “He did it by sheer talent, hard work and determination.

“He overcame a disability and racial prejudice – and prejudice within the profession. He not only overcame things, but blazed a trail not only for African American lawyers and judges but the disabled.

“He is a source of empowerment for the disabled. He did not allow a disability to hold him up.”

Lewis said Paul Simmons' life is, “a story of overcoming obstacles.”

Lewis, who as an assistant U.S. Attorney tried cases before him, said Simmons brought balance to the judicial ranks.

“He was clearly pro-defendant, and that was OK,” Lewis said. “He was always looking out for the rights and the interests of the defendants. “In a way, it balanced out the many judges who were pro-prosecution. Everyone has an ideology that they bring to the bench.

“This is the beauty of our judicial system. We have a balance in ideologies. We should have a mix of ideological views.”

Gwendolyn Simons said she hopes the oral history will illustrate that her husband is “a fighter for his beliefs.”

“He knew in order to achieve, he had to work hard, and whatever he did, he had to give his best. My husband loved people and loved his work.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or

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