Lawrence Kaplan, longtime Allegheny County Family Division judge, dies at 90 |
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Paul Guggenheimer

Judge Lawrence W. Kaplan was known for having an uncanny ability to diffuse a tense courtroom atmosphere.

It’s something he faced often when presiding over divorces or child custody cases during his 30 years as judge in the Family Division of Allegheny County’s Court of Common Pleas.

“My dad had the most amazing sense of humor,” said Kaplan’s daughter, Ellen Teri Kaplan. “Here are all these people; they’re going through divorces, and they’re going through custody, and he’s trying to bring levity into a very, very difficult situation.”

She recalled a joke Kaplan cracked during one divorce proceeding. One of the attorneys’ last name was Rose. Kaplan remarked there was a “Rose between two thorns,” his daughter said.

“That’s the stuff he would do to try and make people a little more comfortable,” she said Wednesday.

Lawrence W. Kaplan died Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. He was 90.

Kaplan gained national recognition for his judicial expertise in domestic relations law. He promoted mediation for conflict resolution and worked with his wife, Natalie, and the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women to establish the Children’s Rooms in the courts, his family and fellow judges said. The rooms are a safe, stress free area for children left in the halls of the courthouse while their parents are dealing with legal issues.

“He was an institution in Family Court,” said Senior Judge Kathleen Mulligan, who served with Kaplan for over 20 years. “He devoted his entire judicial career in Family Court, because he recognized the importance of the work that we do here.

“It’s a very difficult job. You deal with a lot of emotions, and many judges can get burned out.”

Mulligan said Kaplan had a tie that she loved. It had images of children all over it.

“That’s what he stood for,” Mulligan said.

Mulligan said Kaplan would bring in daffodils on the first day of spring and go door-to-door delivering them to everyone in the courthouse.

Senior Judge Judith Friedman said Kaplan was one of the great judges to serve in the Family Division.

“He was a wonderful person and married to a wonderful woman. I wish there were more people like the two of them in this world,” she said.

The Allegheny County Bar Association recognized Kaplan’s achievements in the area of mediation by creating an annual lecture series in his honor.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Kaplan had a reputation for being fair.

“Judges in the Family Division are generally deciding matters based on the equities involved in each situation that is presented,” Zappala said in a statement. “Impartiality is crucial to making those rulings and in that regard, Judge Kaplan was one of the fairest jurists to have served in the Court of Common Pleas.”

Lawrence Kaplan was born and raised in Uniontown and graduated from Uniontown High School, according to his obituary. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played the clarinet in the school’s marching band, and received his law degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He was an Army lieutenant, serving as a Judge Advocate General officer in the Pentagon for three years.

Kaplan began his legal career in Pittsburgh as a bank trust officer and then joined the law firm of Kaufman and Harris, remaining there for 22 years as partner.

In 1978, he was appointed to the bench by Governor Milton Shapp. Kaplan was elected to a 10-year term in 1979 and re-elected for another term in 1989. He became a senior judge in 1998 and remained on the bench until 2008 when he retired.

Kaplan was very involved in the Pittsburgh community, particularly with the Boy Scouts of America, Jewish Family and Children’s Service and Alpha House, a drug rehabilitation center.

“He was a champion always for the underdog,” said Kaplan’s son, Jon Adler Kaplan. “He was one of the first people who really fought for African-American rights and people with disabilities. Social justice was just part of our fabric as a family growing up.”

And he had a musical side. Kaplan participated in musical reviews as part of the annual Bench-Bar Conference bringing judges and lawyers together.

“He would dress in drag. He would wear wigs. He loved to sing and dance. He was something else,” his daughter said.

Kaplan is survived by his wife of 66 years, Natalie; two sons, Thomas Ross Kaplan and his wife, Pamela, and Jon Adler Kaplan; daughter, Ellen Teri Kaplan Goldstein and her husband Michael, and three grandchildren.

Services will be held at Rodef Shalom Temple, 4905 Fifth Avenue (at Morewood) on Friday.

Memorial donations may be made to Carriage House Children’s Center Scholarship Fund, 5604 Solway Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15217 or UJF, 2000 Technology Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15219 or Rodef Shalom Temple, 4905 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 or Alpha House, 435 Shady Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15206.

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