Uncommon choices: Voters must pick wisely for Allegheny County court

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The most critical choice for all Allegheny County voters on Nov. 5 involves Common Pleas Court, where four vacancies must be filled. Although the public typically knows less about judicial candidates than others running for office, the decisions of judges, whether in criminal, civil or family cases, can have a profound impact on county residents.

Electing the best is critical.

On the ballot are six candidates -- two with the Democratic nomination, two with the Republican and two with both nods after having crossfiled and won the support of both parties' voters in the May primary. Running with the Democratic label are Eleanor Bush and Jennifer Satler; under the Republican banner are Bill Ward and P.J. Murray, and with both nominations are Mark Tranquilli and Paul Cozza. All of this year's judicial candidates were interviewed by members of the Post-Gazette editorial board.

Ms. Satler, 38, is an attorney from the North Side who is in private practice, specializing in criminal defense. She worked in the county public defender's office from 2001 to 2007 and has been the volunteer director of Pitt's mock trial program for 13 years. She believes her youth makes her "a good investment in the judiciary" since she could be around for a long time, but the Allegheny County Bar Association rated her "not recommended at this time."

Judge Cozza, 53, has been on the Common Pleas bench since August 2012. He was part of a five-person package of appointments by Gov. Tom Corbett to fill vacancies around the state. Assigned to the Family Division, Judge Cozza of Baldwin Township was previously in private practice for 21 years. In 2009, he was chosen as a special master on the Board of Viewers to try to settle property tax and eminent domain cases before they reached trial, a duty he performed for two and a half years. The county bar rated him "recommended."

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Although the prior two candidates can point to their own experience, the following nominees have earned the Post-Gazette endorsement:

Bill Ward, 61, is already on the bench, having been one of the governor's other 2012 appointees. Judge Ward of Mt. Lebanon is in the Family Division but has also served in Criminal Division's veterans court. He was a lawyer in public and private practice for 35 years, including service as assistant U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan; first assistant state attorney general under Attorney General Corbett; chairman of the state Board of Probation and Parole under Govs. Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker and Ed Rendell; chief of staff for Gov. Corbett; and a member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

The bar association has rated him "highly recommended."

Mark Tranquilli, 46, has been a prosecutor for the Allegheny County district attorney for two decades. At first he was assigned to general trials, then the robbery unit in 1998, followed by the homicide unit in 2000. For the last eight years Mr. Tranquilli of Upper St. Clair has supervised homicide prosecutions and has personally obtained convictions of some of the county's high-profile killers, including Richard Poplawski, who gunned down three Pittsburgh police officers, and Leslie Mollett for the murder of state police Cpl. Joseph Pokorny.

He is "highly recommended" by the county bar.

Eleanor Bush, 53, has considerable experience as a child welfare attorney. Since 2005 she has managed the legal training, under the Pennsylvania Statewide Adoption Network, of more than 140 paralegals who worked as children's advocates across the state. The Squirrel Hill resident was previously the legal director of KidsVoice in Pittsburgh; she supervised 18 attorneys there who represented 5,000 children in Allegheny County who had been victims of abuse or neglect. She also worked as a staff attorney with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia in 1993-2001 and was an assistant counsel for the state Department of Education under Gov. Bob Casey.

The county bar rates her "highly recommended."

P.J. Murray, 52, has been practicing law for 25 years. He clerked for two years with the late U.S. District Judge Barron P. McCune, where he wrote draft opinions, then moved to Thorpe Reed & Armstrong, where he worked for 17 years and made partner. Today Mr. Murray of Upper St. Clair is a partner with Dinsmore & Shohl, specializing in complex civil litigation primarily in employment discrimination, construction disputes, trade secrets and unfair competition. He has been a special master and arbitrator for Common Pleas Court, a member of the hearing committee for the state Supreme Court's Disciplinary Board and a trustee of The Fralic Foundation, in support of youth sports programs in his hometown of Penn Hills.

Mr. Murray is rated "recommended" by the county bar association.


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