13 vying for 4 spots on Allegheny County Common Pleas Court

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This year's race for four vacancies on Allegheny County Common Pleas Court has a crowded field.

Thirteen candidates will vie to run in the general election for the 10-year seats.

All are Democrats, except for Bill Ward, who is a Republican.

Common Pleas Court has four divisions -- civil, family, criminal and orphans' -- and 50 judges, including eight who have senior status.

Here are the candidates, with ratings from the Allegheny County Bar Association:

Eleanor Bush

• Legal training division manager, Pennsylvania Statewide Adoption & Permanency Network

• Bar association rating: Highly recommended

Ms. Bush, 53, of Squirrel Hill, has worked with the adoption network since 1993. She helps to lead training for about 140 paralegals who work with youth and family organizations across the state and also provides training to social workers, foster parents and adoptive parents.

"My entire legal career has been focused on kids and families," she said. "I really view this as an extension of the ongoing work throughout my career."

Based on her work, Ms. Bush would prefer to sit on the bench in the court's family division.

"This is truly an awesome responsibility, but it's a job I really would be good at."

To do that, she said, a judge must "understand [kids'] needs, understand the law and know how to use the law to meet kids' needs."

She volunteers at her children's schools and was a founding member in 1984 of the Ensemble Theater Community School, a theater program for teenagers, that operated through 2011.

Patrick Connelly

• Partner at Summers, McDonnell, Hudock, Guthrie & Skeel

• Bar association rating: Recommended

Mr. Connelly, 45, of Shadyside, has been with his firm for 19 years and works in civil litigation as a trial lawyer. He specializes in insurance defense.

Because of his experience trying cases throughout Pennsylvania, Mr. Connelly believes he would be an asset on the bench.

"I've seen what works and what doesn't," he said.

Mr. Connelly is active in Pittsburgh's Irish community and serves as the solicitor for the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh, which brings young people from troubled areas in Ireland to the city. He also serves on the city's ethics board and as a sixth-grade mentor.

Marcia L. Cooper

• Staff attorney for KidsVoice

• Bar association rating: Highly recommended

Ms. Cooper, 51, of O'Hara, has worked in various aspects of the law, including commercial litigation, personal injury and labor and now dependency.

She believes she has the right temperament and skill set for the bench. What's important to her, she said, is making sure that even when people lose, they feel like they've been heard and received a fair shake.

"It's something I always wanted to do," she said. "My work with KidsVoice has shown me the importance of the courts and the impact judges have on children.

"When you're in front of a good judge, it makes all the difference in the world."

Paul E. Cozza

• Judge, Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, Family Division

• Bar association rating: Recommended

Judge Cozza, 52, of Baldwin Township, was appointed to fill a vacancy on the court in August 2011 by Gov. Tom Corbett. Before that, he was in private practice for 19 years and served as a special master on the county board of viewers, hearing property assessment and eminent domain cases.

"I always thought it would be a great thing to be a judge," he said. And serving on the board of viewers "sparked my interest even more."

Judge Cozza, who said he has the right kind of temperament for the bench, said family division is the most important division of the court.

"With these young kids, we can make a difference. There's not always a good decision, but it has to be the best decision."

Rosemary Crawford

• Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee

• Bar association rating: Highly recommended

Ms. Crawford, 49, of Hampton, works in employment law and is also a certified mediator and arbitrator. She had wanted to be an attorney since childhood and practiced in Washington, D.C., for eight years and has been in Pittsburgh for 20.

She believes that her experience working in government as well as in both small and large firms makes her a good candidate for the bench.

"I know judges can make a difference in people's lives," she said. "I believe in the good in people, and laws are meant to protect us."

To be a good judge, she said, requires that everyone in the courtroom be treated with dignity and respect.

Marc Daffner

• Founding member and managing attorney of Daffner & Associates PC

• Bar association rating: Not recommended at this time

Mr. Daffner, 44, of Green Tree, has a practice that includes criminal defense, family law and consumer protection. He also serves as an arbitrator in both state and federal courts.

Among his qualifications, he cites having a large volume practice all over the state and having worked in both trial and appellate courts on the state and federal levels.

"You can't possibly be a good trial judge unless you've been in trial. We are a litigation practice," he said. "In the broader sense, things like justice and equality aren't just principles out in space to me. They're the reason why I get up in the morning and go to court."

Mr. Daffner also has served as chairman of the Green Tree Civil Service Commission, as a Democratic committeeman, on the Rotary and as a trustee for the Pittsburgh Savoyards Opera.

Barbara Behrend Ernsberger

• Partner in Behrend & Ernsberger

• Bar association rating: Recommended

Ms. Behrend Ernsberger, 61, of Shadyside, practices in civil, family and orphans' court and has specific trial practice involving workers' compensation, insurance and consumer fraud.

She particularly appreciates Common Pleas Court because it deals with the public firsthand.

"You're on the front line in terms of hearing the evidence," she said.

Ms. Behrend Ernsberger would like to sit in family division, she said.

Among her most significant cases, she worked for about 15 years -- from 1992 to 2007 -- on litigation against MetLife, involving 250 cases that represented 400 people.

Her law firm has held dozens of free clinics at local libraries to help members of the public learn how to successfully appeal their property assessments.

"People did well with that," she said. "We were glad to help."

Marvin Leibowitz

• Founder and attorney at Marvin Leibowitz and Associates

• Bar association rating: Not recommended at this time

Mr. Leibowitz, 63, of Squirrel Hill, specializes in bankruptcy, civil and criminal law and does both trial and appellate work. When he graduated from law school, he served as an attorney adviser for the Social Security Administration and helped claimants get their decisions more quickly.

He said it has always been his dream to be a judge but he never had the time or money to take on the challenge before now.

"I think being a judge is the most important job in the state," he said. "You're making decisions about people's lives."

He was appointed to serve on Pittsburgh's Equal Opportunity Review Commission by late Mayor Bob O'Connor.

Joe Luvara

• Managing partner at Flaherty Luvara Law

• Bar association rating: Unqualified

Mr. Luvara, 57, of Carnegie, went into private practice permanently in the late 1990s and focuses on criminal defense, financial matters, bankruptcy, employment, personal injury and foreclosure.

Mr. Luvara ran for judge in 2009 but spent only about seven weeks on the campaign. At the time, he and his wife were in the process of adopting their daughter.

"I didn't want that to be at risk, but I wanted to start the process," he said. "I wanted to get my name out there."

He is interested in the rights of parents and foster parents and believes that the system can be tedious and cumbersome. He'd like to see it streamlined.

"I think I can effectuate some rethinking and, hopefully, influence my colleagues in the court and in the system," he said. "It takes more than being a good lawyer to be a judge. It takes a certain amount of balance, courage, constitution and wisdom in order to make those hard decisions."

Mr. Luvara also owns Groceria Italiana in Bloomfield.

Philip J. Murray

• Partner with Pittsburgh office of Dinsmore & Shohl

• Bar association rating: Recommended

Mr. Murray, 51, of Upper St. Clair, practices in complex civil litigation, specializing in employment discrimination, construction defects, trade secrets and unfair competition.

He served as a law clerk in federal court for two years before going into private practice. Joining the bench, he said, is like a higher calling.

"I believe I have more good to do," he said. "I can better serve my community as a judge than I can in private practice."

He serves as a hearing officer for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Disciplinary Board and is chairman of the Upper St. Clair Civil Service Board. He started the Bill Fralic Foundation in the 1990s to give back to the Penn Hills community where he grew up.

"I've got it in my heart to serve," he said.

Jennifer Satler

• Private practice, focusing on criminal defense

• Bar association rating: Not recommended at this time

Ms. Satler is seeking a seat on the bench, she said, because she wants to make a difference in the lives of families who are in the court system.

"Appearing in court is probably one of the most stressful times in their lives. It's important to treat them with respect and make sure the process is as painless as possible."

Ms. Satler worked in the Allegheny County public defender's office from 2001 to 2007 and teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She has spent 13 years directing the mock trial programs for both the undergraduate and law schools.

Mark V. Tranquilli

• On leave from Allegheny County district attorney's office, where he is deputy in charge of the homicide unit

• Bar association rating: Highly recommended

Mr. Tranquilli has spent 20 years as a prosecutor, the past eight leading the homicide unit. In that time, he has seen how petty crime can evolve into violent crime.

"You start to notice generational cycles," he said. "In my job, by the time some of these kids get to me, there's nothing left for me to do for them -- one is a name on an autopsy report, and one is going to jail for the rest of his life."

Becoming a judge would allow him to interact with offenders at a younger age and possibly change the course of their lives, he said.

He has seriously considered running for judge since 2005. Mr. Tranquilli is on the board of the Center for Victims and teaches as an adjunct faculty member at Pitt, where he leads a criminal justice practicum during which students spend time in the prosecutor's office.

Bill Ward

• Judge, Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, Family Division

• Bar association rating: Highly recommended

Mr. Ward, 61, of Mt. Lebanon, has had a varied legal career -- he worked as a law clerk, prosecutor, defense attorney, chairman of the state Board of Probation and Parole and in 2011 became chief of staff to Gov. Tom Corbett.

In June 2012, the governor appointed him to fill an open seat on Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

"It was an opportunity to fulfill a professional goal I'd had for years," he said. "After 35 years of practicing law, I recognize my strengths and skills are better suited to being a judge than an advocate. I like solving problems and resolving conflict and ensuring that the parties have fair and equal justice and a prompt resolution to their cases."

Judge Ward volunteers on Veterans' Court. He also is an advocate for autism issues and is working on a project that would provide training to law enforcement and court employees in how to deal with children who have behavioral issues.

Correction, posted May 13, 2013: In an earlier version of this story, the Allegheny County Bar Association rating for candidate Philip J. Murray was incorrect.

region - electionsmunicipal

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published May 13, 2013 12:00 AM


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