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Gender gap closing for justices

| Sunday, Nov. 11, 2007

Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom of the nation in female legislators, but take a look at its judges.

On Tuesday Pennsylvania voters elected women to four of five openings on the statewide appeals courts, giving women a majority on the state Superior and Commonwealth courts come January.

"That's a real shift for Pennsylvania," said Drucilla Stender Ramey, executive director of the National Association of Women Judges.

Women fill about 25 percent of all state judicial posts, Ramey said. Until recently Pennsylvania was known for the lack of significant female representation on its high courts.

Next year Superior Court Judge Debra Todd, of Cranberry will go to the state Supreme Court, while Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen of Hampton, and attorneys Jackie Shogan of Murrysville and Christine Donohue of Pittsburgh are headed to Superior Court.

Superior Court Judge Seamus McCaffery, a former Philadelphia police officer and the only man to win an appeals court post during Tuesday's election, will be headed to the Supreme Court next year.

Despite the shift on the courts, the Legislature still ranks 44th among the states in female representation. Only 37 of the 253 lawmakers are women.

A variety of factors might be influencing the shift in the courts and keeping the percentage of women in the Legislature low, analysts say.

Voters tend to look for something that distinguishes candidates in low-profile races such as statewide judicial contests, said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College. Gender might be that something, he said.

Shogan agreed. She became an attorney after a career in nursing and lost two close statewide judicial primaries by razor-thin margins. She got on Tuesday's ballot after a sitting judge dropped out of the race. She spent a month campaigning on her background.

"I think the women were viewed favorably from the perspective of being outsiders. I am a second-career lawyer. I think women related to that. I think it helped Judge McCaffery that he was viewed as a different kind of candidate too," Shogan said.

These perceptions might have helped set female candidates apart, Madonna said, but other factors also contributed to the success of female judicial candidates.

He said the large influx of women into law schools and then into high profile positions such as district attorney and assistant district attorney enables them to be noticed by party leaders looking for female candidates.

That's part of the story, said Missouri state Judge Brenda Loftin of St. Louis, president of the National Association of Women Judges.

"It started out with the law schools. There was a time when law schools were male-dominated. Now women make up the majority of most freshman law school classes. It's a pipeline," Loftin said.

Two female attorneys established the association 28 years ago with the express intent of moving women toward the bench.

Women were a rarity on the bench a generation ago. In Pennsylvania, women hold 101 of 434 judgeships. Of 817 federal judges nationwide, 213 are women.

Donetta Ambrose, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, has served on the federal bench in Pittsburgh since 1993. In 1981 she was elected Westmoreland County's first female judge.

"When I first went on the bench in Westmoreland County, all the reporters were there to see what I would do. It was as if I had green hair," she laughed.

"It's great to see women represented in the judiciary in proportion to their numbers in the profession. I always said women don't have a better perspective; they have a different perspective," Ambrose said.

Political scientist Allyson Lowe directs the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

She's not surprised to see more women on the bench. Lowe said the judiciary is a natural career move for attorneys, even in a state where women do not hold elective office in great numbers.

"Lawyers think about running for judge. But we have to encourage men and women to think about running for the Legislature," Lowe said.

Even though women dominated the statewide judicial races Tuesday, Allen discounted any notion they had an edge. Allen was a teacher before she went to law school and was elected to the bench.

"You have to campaign all over the state and raise funds. That's tough stuff. I would tend to think it might be easier to do that in a legislative race," Allen said.

Shogan said she hopes voters and women will look at Tuesday's election results and realize that women are electable.

So, with female jurists now a majority on two courts, will Pennsylvania finally break out of the basement and elect more women to the General Assembly?

"It could be next year. It could be 50 years," said Lowe. "We used to think the problem was women are unelectable. Now we know that is not the case. What we really need is more women running. When women run, women do win."

State judgeships

Court of Common Pleas: Pennsylvania's trial courts for state criminal, civil and family actions. The courts are organized into 60 districts. Most counties have their own common pleas courts, although several of the less populous counties share a single district. Judges are elected by district and serve 10-year terms.

Commonwealth Court: A statewide court that handles civil actions against the state or state officers and issues involving the state election code. The court consists of nine judges chosen in statewide races and serve 10-year terms.

Superior Court: A statewide court that handles appeals from the common pleas courts on civil and criminal matters. The court also oversees wiretap applications from district attorneys and the attorney general. The court consists of 15 judges chosen in statewide elections and serve 10-year terms.

Supreme Court: The state's highest court, the Supreme Court hears appellate issues form other courts. The court also oversees disciplinary actions involving attorneys and judges. It has the right to assume jurisdiction over any case pending before another court involving an issue of immediate public importance. The court consists of seven justices chosen in statewide elections who serve 10-year terms.

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