Rename Pittsburgh's U.S. courthouse for Judge Joseph F. Weis Jr.

Our grand federal court building should be named for one of its greatest jurists

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A city is defined not just by those leaders who make headlines today. Its DNA is also made up of prominent figures who have birthed its successes and defined its character in past eras.

Pirates superstar Roberto Clemente and award-winning author David McCullough each have bridges named after them. Andy Warhol has an art museum. Andrew Carnegie has magnificent public libraries.

Congress would honor Pittsburgh’s great tradition in law and public service by naming the U.S. Courthouse on Grant Street after the late Judge Joseph F. Weis Jr. This renowned U.S. Court of Appeals judge and World War II hero, who died in March at the age of 91, was a giant in the legal profession and the embodiment of Pittsburgh’s most cherished qualities.

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting name for the magnificent granite and limestone building at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Grant Street than that of the dignified, highly ethical judge who occupied a chamber in that building for 43 years — one of the longest-serving federal judges in the history of Western Pennsylvania.

Judge Weis was a Pittsburgher through-and-through. He grew up on the North Side and attended Duquesne University as an undergraduate, interrupting his education to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Injured on the field of battle in France as a member of the 4th Armored Division, Joe Weis spent four years in hospitals but survived through resolve and steeltown grit. He was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, along with France’s highest award for heroism in combat.

After completing his law degree at the University of Pittsburgh, Joe Weis joined his father in forming the Weis & Weis law firm. He was a leader in the Allegheny County Bar Association and a founder of the Academy of Trial Lawyers. He won election as a judge on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in the late 1960s, finishing first on both the Democratic and Republican ballots. He was appointed to the federal trial bench by President Richard Nixon in 1970 and in 1973 was elevated to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, one step below the U.S. Supreme Court.

An innovator and workhorse among jurists, Judge Weis became nationally famous for spearheading efforts to advance courtroom technology and foster judicial ethics. On more than one occasion when I organized events at Duquesne University featuring U.S. Supreme Court justices, attorneys general and other luminaries, the speaker would conclude his or her remarks, step down from the stage and make a beeline for Judge Weis in the front row, as if paying homage to an American legal icon.

Indeed, Judge Weis was a legendary figure in the profession and a national treasure. He was brilliant yet humble, caring yet committed to the rule of law, fiercely proud of his Pittsburgh roots, devoted to his wife, Peggy Horne, a native of Morningside (to whom he was married for 54 years until her death in 2012) and a role model for thousands of young lawyers and judges.

Joe Weis was to Pittsburgh what Oliver Wendell Holmes was to his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts — a reflection of that town’s greatest aspirations and its commitment to creating leaders who can help shape the nation.

In late April, the Judicial Council of the Third Judicial Circuit of the United States unanimously endorsed naming the U.S. Courthouse in Pittsburgh after Judge Weis, recognizing his “immeasurable contributions to our nation and to the judiciary.” This is one bill that Democrats and Republicans in Congress should be able to join hands in enacting.

The official description of Pittsburgh’s grand federal courthouse — which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year — says that it conveys “dignity and stability.” Those words equally describe the life’s work of Judge Weis.

Naming the courthouse for him would be a public expression of admiration and gratitude for his many accomplishments. It would help his example live on — in the hope that future lawyers, judges, students of the law and public servants might model themselves after this incomparable Pittsburgh jurist.

Ken Gormley is dean and professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law.

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