The State of Women in the Judiciary in Pennsylvania

As we come to the end of Women’s History month and Nauman Smith’s tribute to outstanding female judges, it seems appropriate to pause and to examine the state of women in the judiciary in general in Pennsylvania. Although important strides have been made in getting women elected to the bench both in the trial and appellate courts, more remains to be done.  It is worthy to note that, as this article is being written, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is completing her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding her nomination to fill the upcoming vacancy on the United States Supreme Court which will occur when current Justice Stephen Breyer (for whom Judge Jackson clerked) retires.  If her nomination is successful, she will be one of three women on the Supreme Court, the most ever, and the first African American woman to sit on the Court.

Currently, 37% of active judges in Pennsylvania state courts are women[CS1] .  For comparison, 26.9% of Pennsylvania state senators are women and 26% of state representatives are women.  Looking in slightly more detail, at the trial or county court level, 37% of the seats are held by women.  17 women serve as the President Judges of their judicial districts (60) or roughly 28%.  Locally, this includes York and Schuylkill counties to name a few.  In the Magisterial District Courts, women make up 27% of the bench.

Women have made the largest impact in the elected judicial positions on the Commonwealth’s appellate level courts, i.e., the Supreme, Commonwealth and Superior Courts.  Of the seven sitting Justices of the Supreme Court, three, are women, Justices Todd, Donohue and Mundy.  Justice Sandra Schultz-Newman was the first woman elected to the Supreme Court in 1995.

On the Superior Court, of the current 14 sitting judges, 10 are women equaling 71% of positions held by women.  As to the Commonwealth Court, of the current 8 sitting judges, 7 are held by women for an impressive 88% held by women. In fact, in 2002, the Commonwealth Court became the first appellate court in Pennsylvania, and perhaps the United States, to have a majority of women judges[CS2] .  The current President Judge of the Commonwealth Court is Judge Renee Cohn-Jubelirer having been preceded in that position by fellow female jurists, Judge Bonnie Leadbetter (the Court’s first female President Judge) and Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt.

Of note are a few firsts: Judge Sylvia Rambo was the first female judge in Cumberland County having been appointed to the seat.  She also went on to be the first female judge to sit in the Middle District of Pennsylvania and would later become its first female Chief Judge.  Judge Juanita Kidd Stout was the first African American woman elected judge in the United States.  She served in both the Philadelphia Municipal and Common Pleas courts. She later was appointed to a seat on the Commonwealth’s Supreme Court making her the first African American woman to serve on a state supreme court in the nation. However, Justice Anne Alpren holds the honor of being the first female to be appointed to a seat on the state Supreme Court in 1961.  Judge Genevieve Blatt was the first woman appointed to the Commonwealth Court (before judges to the court were elected) shortly after its creation in 1972. Dauphin County did not elect its first female judge until 1991when Judge Jeannine Turgeon (a former lawyer at Nauman Smith) was elected to the bench.

There appears to be no easily accessible statistics on the overall representation of women on the federal bench in Pennsylvania.  However, a review of the Middle District website reveals of the 5 judges in the District (excluding judges who have elected senior status), only one seat is held by a woman, Judge Jennifer Wilson.  Of the 5 Magistrate Judges, 2 seats are held by women including Magistrate Judge Mehalchick who is also the Chief Judge. 

According to the Westen District’s website, of the 10 judges (excluding those electing senior status), 5 are women.  Of its 6 Magistrate Judges, 3 are women, representing 50% in both categories of judges.

Finally, per the Eastern District’s website, of the 17 judges (excluding those electing senior status), 3 are women.  Of the 9 Magistrate Judges serving in the District, 5 are women.

Roughly 40% of the population of Pennsylvania over the age of 18 is female.  Nationwide, 37% of attorneys are female up from just 3% in 1970.  Although in Pennsylvania representation of women in the judiciary has shown encouraging improvement, especially in our appellate courts, there is still much to be done, as evidenced by the federal court statistics to assure appropriate representation of women in all aspects of both appointment to and election to the bench. 

The legal community should continue its efforts to consistently encourage women to pursue legal careers in both the public and private sectors and to support female candidates to seek election to judicial office at all levels.

 [CS1]Information primarily from the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts as of February 2022.

 [CS2]Commonwealth Court Historical Society website last visited 3/25/22

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