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Former U.S. District Court judge Simmons dies at 93

| Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014, 12:41 a.m.

Paul Simmons' legacy will be marked by his contribution to the historic Brown v. Topeka Board of Education segregation case and his service as a county and federal judge, family and friends said.

But those who knew him best will recall his compassion for people.

The Monongahela resident died Thursday. The former Washington County and U.S. District Court judge was 93.

A 1939 Monongahela High School graduate, Simmons went to work for the construction company his father and uncle operated. But when he was denied a raise, he got a job in 1941 for the Pennsylvania Railroad in its Shire Oaks freight car repair shop. Badly injured in an accident, Simmons' right leg was amputated above the knee on Valentine's Day 1942.

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

Simmons accepted a teaching position at the all-black South Carolina State College because he wanted to learn about life in the South.

At South Carolina State, he encouraged and advised students on where and how to initiate the first federal legal challenge to the Constitutional separate-but-equal doctrine.

According to his biography, Simmons told students plaintiffs in the case must not be intimidated into withdrawing the case, and that 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 NAACP attorney Harold Bouleware in the historic case Briggs v. Elliot, the first of the five cases that were combined into Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 – the landmark action in which the U.S. Supreme Court banned racial segregation in public schools.

Simmons was a professor of law at the North Carolina College of Law from 1952 to 1956 before returning home to practice law from 1956 to 1973.

Simmons was a top defense attorney when he faced then-Assistant Washington County District Attorney Herman Bigi in some epic cases.

“Paul came up to me one day and said, “Herman I'm tired of fighting you. Let's get together in a firm,” Bigi recalled.

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

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

Bigi said the firm, and especially Simmons, dominated the civil and criminal court lists.

“There was no one ever like Paul Simmons,” Bigi said. “Paul's office was like Grand Central Station. People were waiting on the sidewalk to get in and see Paul. Rich, people, poor people, it didn't matter to Paul. He represented everyone equally.”

Bigi said Simmons worked tirelessly.

“He would go home at 1 or 2 in the morning and get up and drive to federal court in Pittsburgh to try cases. In our firm, Paul tried all of our federal court cases.”

Bigi said Simmons could have practiced law anywhere, even in a large city like New York, but he chose the Valley.

A bulldog in court, Simmons was a caring man outside it.

“Paul was a very compassionate man,” Bigi said. “And a funny thing about him; he carried in his pocket a checkbook. ... A client would come into the office for consultation and he might write out a check for them because they were poor, because they needed food for their family or their car was going to be repossessed.”

Bigi said Simmons was never concerned about money or he would been one of the wealthiest attorneys in the state.

“No one in this commonwealth will ever fill the shoes of the late Paul Simmons,” Bigi said. “What a great human being. What an honorable, giving, unselfish man. That's the way he conducted himself in life.”

Then-Gov. Milton Shapp appointed Simmons to the Washington County Court of Common Pleas.

In 1975, Simmons ran for a 10-year term on the county bench, earning the nominations of both parties.

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

Retired Judge Livingstone M. Johnson had been on the Allegheny County bench for just a few months when Simmons became a county judge.

Johnson recessed his civil case early and drove to Washington in time to see his friend sworn in.

Johnson's and Simmons' families go back several generations. Johnson's maternal grandfather was the pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Monongahela a century ago.

Johnson and his brother, Superior Court Judge Justin Johnson, thought so highly of Simmons that they hired him to represent them in a civil case.

“It was known throughout the Mid-Mon Valley that if you had Paul Simmons represent you, you had a very capable litigant,” Livingstone Johnson said. “Paul was a trailblazer for his historic rise to the county and federal benches.

“He will most be remembered in western Pennsylvania as a dogged litigator who, if he took on a case, he believed in the issue presented to him and believed in the client's right to prevail.”

Gwendolyn Simmons said her husband was a person of strong convictions.

“He had a real genuine love for his fellow man,” she said. “He was a person who believed in the Constitution strongly and thought the forefathers were brilliant in understanding human nature and protecting all of us.”

Gwendolyn Simmons said her husband's legacy will be his contribution to the Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education case.

“He felt respect for the law, and in order to have that, you have to have equal application of the law for all,” his wife said.

Married in 1950, the couple has a son, Paul, and two daughters, Gwen Simmons and Ann Simmons Scott.

“He never turned anyone down because they didn't have money,” his wife said. “He would say maybe that person has a case but can't afford to pay. That person may not be able to pay me. But they may tell someone who has a case.”

Visitation will be 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday and 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday in the Frye Funeral Home Inc., Monongahela. Services will be held 11 a.m. Thursday in the Bethel A.M.E. Church, Monongahela.

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

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