Seven running for 2 Common Pleas Court positions

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Quickly, how many judges are there on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas? What does a tipstaff do? A bailiff? If your mind just went blank, don't fret. The innards of the County Courthouse can be mystifying for voters -- the elections of its judges even more so.

Among the seven people vying this year for two spots on Allegheny County Common Pleas Court are a former mayoral candidate, the wife of a homicide detective, a lawyer from South Africa and a self-professed "accomplished accordion player" who also happens to be a sitting judge. Between them, the candidates have dozens of years of legal experience in seemingly as many roles: prosecutor, public defender, civil litigator, child advocate, municipal solicitor.

The choice can be dizzying, especially because the jurists -- elected for 10-year terms -- are responsible for numerous important decisions in the county.

This year's candidates boast a spectrum of promises, and they received a variety of ratings from the Allegheny County Bar Association. In alphabetical order, they are:

Alexander P. Bicket, 54, of Mt. Lebanon, is a partner at law firm Zimmer Kunz PLLC, where he has worked as a civil litigator for 23 years, he said. Raised in South Africa, he moved to the United States as a young adult, seeking to leave behind a country rended by apartheid. He began his time in Pittsburgh teaching at Fox Chapel Area High School, attending law school at night before joining Zimmer Kunz as an associate. In one of his most memorable cases, he worked pro bono, representing an immigrant who owned a pizza shop when the man's landlords tried to evict him, he said. Mr. Bicket also ran for Common Pleas judge in 2009; he believes his trial experience has prepared him well, he said.

"I understand that judges are not the focal point of litigation, the lawyers and their clients with their disputes are," Mr. Bicket said.

Rated "highly recommended" by the bar association, Mr. Bicket is listed on both Democratic and Republican ballots.

Something voters might not know: "My birthday is May 17th, the day of the primary," Mr. Bicket said.

Eleanor Bush, 51, of Squirrel Hill, provides legal training and consultation for a statewide program focused on finding permanent families for children in foster care. Originally from northern New Jersey, Ms. Bush began working at a child advocacy clinic while she was a law student. She started her career in the Pennsylvania Department of Education, then worked at Philadelphia's Juvenile Law Center. Ms. Bush moved to Pittsburgh in 2001 to work at KidsVoice, which provides legal representation to children in the child welfare system. If she is elected, she would like to stay in the family division of the court, where new judges often start, she said.

"I've seen over and over again what an impact the courts have on children's futures and family's futures," she said. "I really feel like I'm ready to contribute at a leadership level."

Rated "recommended" by the bar association, Ms. Bush is listed on Democratic and Republican ballots.

Something voters might not know: "I'm a parent myself, and I have two daughters growing up in Squirrel Hill," Ms. Bush said.

Leah Williams Duncan, 45, of Brighton Heights, is a hearing officer in the court's family division. She also has pledged her intention to stay in that division, where she has worked for 10 years, conducting hearings each day about child support, paternity and similar matters. Raised in Northview Heights, Ms. Duncan joined the Army Reserves after graduating from college, then attended law school, eventually working as a lawyer representing parents and children in the child welfare system.

"It's very emotional here in the family division ...," she said. "Everyone needs that opportunity just to express themselves. That's so important. I've had people tell me, 'It didn't work out in my favor, but you were fair.' "

Ms. Duncan also is a member of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations. Listed on the Democratic Ballot, she ran for judge in 2009 and was rated "recommended" by the bar association then, but this year was rated "not recommended at this time," which she challenged.

"I've done nothing but enhance my qualifications," she said.

Something voters might not know: Ms. Duncan tried out for and made the Pittsburgh Force women's football team, she said.

Daniel J. Konieczka Jr., 50, of Shaler, recently retired from his job as Allegheny County deputy district attorney to run for judge. Currently working as a defense lawyer, he was a prosecutor for 23 years, handling thousands of criminal matters, he said. The son of a police officer, Mr. Konieczka (pronounced "Kon-ech-ka") grew up in Morningside, attending law school after a hockey teammate at the University of Pittsburgh urged him to take the LSATs. His most memorable work at the district attorney's office involved prosecuting dozens of people who were accused of being members of the Larimer Avenue-Wilkinsburg gang during the 1990s.

"It was really eye-opening to me to see why these young men were doing what they're doing ...," he said.

Rated "highly recommended" by the bar association, Mr. Konieczka is listed on Republican and Democratic ballots.

Something voters might not know: "I have a new hip, I've had neck surgery, and I'm still playing ice hockey," Mr. Konieczka said.

Common Pleas Judge Michael F. Marmo, 56, of Ohio Township, has served in the family division of the court since 2009, when he was appointed to fill a vacancy.

"I don't think there's any substitute for experience ...," Judge Marmo said. "It's one thing to be a candidate, it's another thing to be there."

Originally from Mount Washington, Judge Marmo was raised in Emsworth, where he worked as a tax collector while attending law school at night. Judge Marmo served for years as a municipal solicitor for Emsworth and other communities, also running a private practice. In 1995, he became a special master on the county Board of Viewers, hearing tax appeal and eminent domain cases. Since his appointment to Common Pleas Court, he has become very invested in the family division, he said.

"I really and truthfully feel for these kids," he said, describing the case of a girl whose mother apparently did not want her. "The day that doesn't bother me is the day I leave," he said.

Listed on Democratic and Republican ballots, Judge Marmo was rated "recommended" by the bar association.

Something voters might not know: "I'm an accomplished accordion player," Judge Marmo said.

Carmen L. Robinson, 42, of Crawford Roberts, is a criminal defense attorney and former Pittsburgh police officer. She is known to many Pittsburghers as a challenger to Luke Ravenstahl in the last mayoral race. She was raised in Stanton Heights and became a police officer at age 20 after graduating from college early. The 15 years she spent on the force were marked by controversy, culminating in a sexual harassment lawsuit she filed against three superiors in 1994. Although a jury ruled against her, Ms. Robinson won a new trial, and the city agreed to a settlement. Ms. Robinson returned to work in 1998. She said she was proud of her time as an officer.

"I'm passionate about the law, and everybody has to follow the law," she said. "Law enforcement doesn't get a pass."

In addition to working as a police officer and defense lawyer, Ms. Robinson has clerked for two judges.

"Having all those three views makes me a pretty darn sturdy candidate," she said.

Listed on the Democratic ballot, Ms. Robinson was rated "not recommended at this time" by the bar association.

Something voters might not know: "I'm an Internet nerd," Ms. Robinson said.

Jennifer Satler, 35, of Washington's Landing, is a private criminal defense lawyer and former public defender. Married to Pittsburgh police homicide detective George Satler, Ms. Satler said she understands both sides of the justice system. She has taught undergraduate and law school courses on trial law and works closely with Pitt's mock trial team, she said.

"I believe I am uniquely qualified to understand certain drawbacks to the system," she said, pledging to handle cases efficiently if elected. "There is a tremendous waste of time that goes on that I think could be brought a little bit more under control."

Listed on Democratic and Republican ballots, Ms. Satler was rated "not recommended at this time" by the bar association.

Something voters might not know: Ms. Satler's bulldog, Louie, is certified as a therapy dog, she said.


Vivian Nereim: vnereim@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413.


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