Highly Qualified Pa. Judicial Candidates in 2017

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Statue of justiceOn November 7, registered voters in Pennsylvania can vote for state judicial candidates. In this 2017 election, voters will elect judges for one seat on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, four seats on the Superior Court of Pennsylvania and two seats on the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Is this important? You bet it is. These are the men and women who will decide cases that will affect us for years to come.  The judges we elect will stay on the bench for at least ten years and decide hundreds of cases on appeal. These appellate courts have the final say in deciding and interpreting Pennsylvania laws and the outcome of cases.

By now you have probably received campaign advertisements in the mail like the one I got today telling me to “Vote for Judges Who Share Our Values and Stand for the Flag.” I am not sure what that means but I am told that the candidates listed are “experienced” and have the “highest ability, ethical standards & integrity.” How do we know who is qualified to make important decisions interpreting laws and impacting people’s lives?

One of the best ways is the evaluations published by the Pennsylvania Bar Association which has no political affiliation. The Pa. Bar Association selects a Judicial Evaluation Commission to evaluate and report on the qualifications of judicial candidates for the Pa. courts of appeal.  The Commission consists of lawyers and non-lawyers from across the Commonwealth. According to the Commission Chairman, Robert F. Morris, “the Commission only recommends potential candidates who have the legal ability, experience, integrity and temperament to provide satisfactory or outstanding performance as appellate judges and justices.”

Here is the link to the Commission’s report which rates the candidates as highly qualified, qualified or unqualified. Any candidate that did not request evaluation by the Commission is not listed. Also, the report on the judges who are already serving but are up for retention has not yet been published. Take just a few minutes and you will see all of the ratings. In 30 minutes you can read the evaluations and understand why the candidates received those ratings. It is important information and time well spent.

On the campaign flyer I received one superior court judge candidate I was urged to vote for was Mary Murray who has not been rated. I suspect the reason why she did not volunteer for a rating is that she only has judicial experience as a district justice  in what is known as small claims or majestrate court. She has never even served as a county court judge and now she seeks to be elected to the Pa. Superior Court. That’s the problem with campaign literature, its primary focus is political, not accurate information.

Don’t forget to vote on November 7.

 

 

 

Pottsgove HS Reuniting for a Night.

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What caught my attention most about the 2017 reunion of the Pottsgrove High School classes of 1969, 1970 and 1971 was what people wore.

Most wore smiles as they engaged classmates from two score plus years ago.

Many wore the wrinkles earned by sixty somethings, while some wore only a few lines hiding their age well.

World travelers had feet well-worn from thousands of miles.

Retirement fit some like well-worn shoes while others weren’t buying and a few had tried it on and returned it.

We wore glasses for well-worn eyes which have seen beauty and ugliness in the world.

Some bore physical scars from sports, mishaps, surgeries and others invisible scars because people can be cruel.

Hair was worn by all, just not the same way as 45+ years ago.

I envisioned hands bearing callouses but saw no evidence of calloused hearts from those who had spent a life of serving and caring for others.

Grandparents displayed joy and some a little wear and tear.

Serious disease, for some, had been stripped off and tossed into the corner baring a passion for life others did not yet know.

Memories of the best of times seemed none the worse for wear and old wounds were well wrapped for the night.

Those I had a chance to see wore their lives well.

Sadly, there was not time enough to learn what everyone wore.

I hope the next time we meet others I have not seen since the days of maroon and white can come. The old PHS dress code does not apply.

 

What Was Your Vietnam War Experience?

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The encounter took place in the fall of 1970. I was a freshman at Villanova University. Back then VU mainly attracted students from the Mid-Atlantic and New England states. Many students lived locally and commuted. There was a small population of students from other states and countries. VU was and is a Catholic university.  Most of us were from white, middle class, suburban families.

On the other side of the world, the Vietnam War was still raging. The majority of public sentiment had shifted against continuing the war but there were very strong, different opinions about how and when to end the U.S involvement.

Students had been actively, sometimes violently, protesting at many colleges.  At times the protestors were violently disbursed.  On May 4, 1970, four student protesters were shot and killed at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen. The vast majority of Villanova students were not actively protesting the war in the fall of 1970.

One night I was sitting with some new friends in the dorm having a wide-ranging conversation when someone expressed an opinion that the war never had a justifiable purpose.  A friend I will call Paul took serious issue with this and dropped a verbal bombshell.  His older brother had been a soldier who was killed in Vietnam.  Like most, his brother was a very young man when he died. Just like a bomb explosion, Paul’s words created both a blast wave hitting us with force and a blast wind sucking the air out of the room.

Based on the news I heard and read I thought the war was wrong.  Paul, who shared many of my views, had a very different opinion about the Vietnam War. The big difference between us on this issue was his personal experience – the loss of his brother. All I could think to offer was a sincere, I’m sorry.

The deaths, injuries and psychological trauma from the war which I read about and saw on the news were jarring. By the end of the war in 1975 over 50,000 U.S. soldiers and advisors had been killed and hundreds of thousands physically wounded or psychologically damaged.  It is estimated that between two and three million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians had been killed.  Layered on top was the civil unrest and societal fissures that split our country. The era of absolute trust in the government had come to an end as the American people learned that our government had been lying and hiding information about the war for years beginning in the Kennedy administration.

I am fortunate that I did not have any first-hand experience with the Vietnam War.  My second-hand experiences made me more sceptical of people in power, both civilian and military. I learned that those of us who did not serve in the war were in no position to judge those who did. I do believe the Vietnam War affected every American in some way. What was your experience?

The Birth of a Legal Career

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Orangeburg Massacre

I was a sophomore in high school in 1967-68. My academic credentials were good, not great. My girlfriend and sports were my top priorities.  I disrupted classes (too often) with attempts at humor.  Some of my teachers were good and some average.  The good teachers struggled to inspire 15 year old students like me to think about more than our social lives, hobbies and those taboo things that our parents fretted about.

There was one teacher who, for me, stood out that year. She was less than eight years older than us which made her perhaps the youngest teacher in school. Her name was Mary and she taught World Cultures. Mary cared deeply about social issues and she would often weave current events into her lectures trying to awaken our complacent minds to the reality of the turmoil in our country and the world at that time.

The summer before, July 1967, Newark, NJ erupted in a massive riot after the news spread that a black man had been beaten to death by police. Twenty-six people died and over 700 were injured.  Detroit was next to explode.  That school year the Vietnam War was escalating and the death toll was mounting. In response the protest movement was growing. The civil rights movement, having won legal protections a few years earlier, was still fighting for acceptance in many parts of America. There was a groundswell movement of college students pushing hard for change in social policies and laws. Clashes between students and police turned deadly. In Mary’s class we heard a message that upended the conservative, middle-class perspective in our school. Throughout that school year I grew more interested each time she challenged us with the turmoil of current events.

At our school, where history lessons never reached the Twentieth Century, our World Cultures class was hearing a young teacher’s liberal perspective of current events.  On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. On June 4, Robert Kennedy, who had won the hearts of idealistic people looking for change, won the Democratic Presidential primary in California. In the early morning of June 5, he was murdered.

The day of Kennedy’s assassination, Mary stood before our class and in a broken voice said they keep killing our best leaders. She then walked out of the room and I think I saw tears in her eyes.  I had never seen such passion from a teacher before. The civil rights, anti-war and anti-poverty movements that King and Kennedy led did not die with them. A sense of purpose began to grow in me that year. Beneath my carefree exterior were questions about how activism, politics and law impacted lives.

Later in June my girlfriend, Sharon, and I talked about the future. I told her that I wanted to pursue a law degree and maybe run for political office someday. The world around us had become a volatile and uncertain place and I think we were both a little frightened about the future. She told me she would support whatever I wanted to do.

We remained together for the next 6 years and then married. She supported us while I went to law school. It is now 49 years after that June night that we talked and she  has supported and nurtured me so I could pursue my dreams and goals ever since.  A teacher sparked my yearning to know the law. My wife and best friend has tended the flame for a lifetime. As for me, I still have more questions than answers.

When Lawyers Are Bullies.

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I dislike it when a lawyer grandstands or tries to bully others for his clients.

Tim and Kathy Deere nervously sat in my office. They told me they had just received a letter from Gary Berger, a lawyer, who represented John Wolf, the man who had just purchased their home. Mr. Wolf was demanding over $100,000 because he claimed he developed a respiratory illness from mold found in duct work of the house. The claim was for removal of the mold, medical bills, loss of income, pain, suffering and punitive damages. He alleged that the Deere’s had committed fraud.  We discussed all of the facts and circumstances of the sale. The Deere’s not only did not know of any mold, nothing about mold was reported in the home inspection Mr. Wolf had done before he bought the house. Neither of them had ever been diagnosed with any medical problem from mold. Nothing they told me indicated any liability on their part and certainly no fraud.

I sent a letter to Attorney Berger explaining my clients’ lack of knowledge and refusal to pay any money to Mr. Wolf. In few days a phone call came.  I picked up the phone and the troubling conversation went something like this:

Kurt: Hello.

Berger: Hello. This is Gary Berger. I represent John Wolf. You represent the people  who fraudulently withheld information about mold in the house sold to my client. Your clients are lying about the mold. We will prove it and if we have to go to court we are increasing our demand to $500,000. Your clients will lose and then you will have egg on your face for not recommending that they settle this case.

Kurt: Gary, is your client in your office with you?

Berger: Yes, he is right here.

Kurt; I am not interested in discussing this with you while you are grandstanding for your client. If you have a reply to my letter, send it to me in writing. Good-bye Gary.

I hung up the phone.

What I really wanted to say was, Gary stop being a jerk!  Gary Berger was putting on a show for his client. His aggression was also intended to intimidate my client and me.

I have run into several lawyers like Gary Berger in my career. They like to bluster, posture and bully. I have never been impressed. I quickly learned not to take Berger’s phone calls and told him that all communications must be in writing. That took away his performance stage.

Lawyers who approach a controversy by bullying tactics are not interested in reaching an equitable result for the parties. They are interested in building their reputations as lawyers to be feared. They believe this is the way to achieve success. The lawyers I have most respected and tried to emulate take an approach that, instead, relies on preparation and fair resolution. We know that success is measured by more than just financial gain.

Mahatma Gandhi said: I realized the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby — not even money, certainly not my soul.

*This story combined elements from several experiences with certain lawyers over the years. 

One Divorce, Two Countries and Lots of Lawyers.

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Over two decades ago, when I was still handling divorces, I needed to find a Solicitor and Barrister in London quickly. Solicitors in England are basically the same as general practice attorneys in this country. English Barristers are specialists in the law. My client would need both because this divorce was being waged in two countries. I was confronted with the most novel legal strategy of my career. Here is the story with fictional names, of course.

Jack filed for divorce from Marge in Pennsylvania after a thirty year marriage. Marge hired me to represent her. Jack had climbed high into the corporate executive structure. Marge managed their home while also working at a job but her priorities were their home life. Jack had now developed other interests in a world where Marge did not fit in. His income dwarfed hers as did his retirement plan and other assets in his name. We petitioned for temporary alimony, available in Pa. to bring some economic equality to the parties during the divorce litigation.

But Jack held the power at this juncture of their relationship and he knew how to exploit it. He wanted a divorce with more favorable terms than he could obtain in Pennsylvania so he secured a transfer of his job, established what he called a “permanent residence” in London and filed for divorce there. Marge was very hurt by Jack’s callousness.

Under English law Marge would not get alimony nor the equitable distribution of marital assets that she was entitled to in Pennsylvania. Marge needed legal representation in London to fight for her interests. Her funds were limited but we worked out a suitable arrangement. Not every person could stand up to the power-move Jack had employed but Marge was strong. She would fight.  So now I needed to find a London law firm that would work with us.  Where to start?  Very little in my legal career had prepared me for this task except for one thing. I had learned years before about the importance of building a strong network of referral attorneys to help with cases I was not equipped to handle alone. After hours of research and phone calls to my network I vetted and secured a law firm in London that would work with us to fight Jack’s divorce action in England.

Discussing legal strategy with our London legal team was very interesting.  At times our accents, the differences in our laws and legal systems made for lots of questions and  a steep learning curve for both of us. After several months of hard work, court appearances by my English counterparts, hours of phone calls and faxed correspondence, our inter-continental legal team had successfully stalled the London divorce in favor of the Pa. legal action.  Marge stayed strong and the power dynamics were back on a fair footing in Pennsylvania.

After some tough negotiations, the alimony and property settlement issues were resolved here in Pennsylvania fairly and without further court appearances.  Fortunately, there were no children drawn into this international drama. In the end all that Jack succeeded in doing through his legal maneuvering was to increase legal fees and inflict  needless emotional damage on Marge  that would leave scars on her and maybe him too for a long time.

Not Dressed for Court!

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Back in the late 70’s, law office attire was much different from today. Dress casual is common today. Back then the guys in my law office wore ties virtually every day. Beyond the tie it varied from suits to slacks and jacket. Clients expected this level of dress and courts required it. If I wasn’t going to court or didn’t have a client meeting, the style of slacks varied from pin stripe to dress slacks. At the time I owned a pair of slacks with a (somewhat) subtle blue, white and thin red plaid that were in-style sportswear. One Friday I decided to bend the rules and wear them to work with a red tie and blue blazer.

Late morning one of the partners called me into his office to meet a client.  After introductions I learned that the client’s son had a disposition hearing in juvenile court early that afternoon.  It was a sentencing hearing. The father was facing assessment of the costs to cover his son’s placement in a youth program. The partner told his client that I would represent the father and son at the hearing. Mild panic set in. There was precious little time to prepare for the hearing and no time to go home and change. I was going to have to wear this outfit to court.

The jacket and tie were fine but plaid pants for court? Unconventional to say the least.  I spent what time I had preparing for the hearing and got in my car to drive the half hour to court. I was really stressed-out about those darn plaid pants. I had appeared before this judge before and the best way I can describe him is “grumpy.” He probably never owned plaid pants in his life.  As a young attorney it was challenging enough to project confidence and competence. Conservative business attire for court was always the safest bet. How would the judge react?  Would he say something that would embarrass me in front of my client and the court staff?  Studies have shown that how we feel about our appearance affects our self-confidence. I didn’t need a study to make the point that day.

The hearing started and things went reasonably well. The judge didn’t comment about my pants but I am sure a few eyebrows were raised. The result for the client was about the best we could expect; maybe better than a young lawyer wearing plaid pants had a right to expect. I was happy to get out of that courtroom and back in my car.

I had spent hours worrying about what people would think of how I was dressed. I have found over the years that it is easy to fear the worst and that the fear of anticipation is almost always worse than dealing with the situation.  Suppressing anxiety is not easy but I do better by simply tackling hard things head on, accepting that the outcome may not be perfect and then putting the situation in perspective. In the big picture most situations do not live up to the worry.

I retired those blue plaid pants from their professional career after that day but they went on to live out their days in comfortable retirement, on the golf course.