The Pennsylvania Supreme Court made history recently when it appointed two African American women to the highest posts in the Philadelphia court system, formally known as the First Judicial District. The Honorable Sheila Woods-Skipper (LAW ‘83) and the Honorable Jacqueline Allen (LAW ‘79) became the Chair of the Administrative Governing Board and Administrative Judge for the Trial Division, respectively, for the First Judicial District. Together, they will lead a system with a $110 million annual budget and a 2,400-member workforce.
This is a historic moment. Neither post has ever been filled by an African American or by a woman, despite the presence of many qualified candidates among the ranks of the judiciary. With these appointments, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has signaled its willingness to listen to African American leaders who have been calling for more diversity in leadership positions within the state judicial system. I commend the Court for listening to these concerns and for acting on them with such conviction, and I (like many others) hope the Court continues to make progress along this path.
As the Dean of Temple Law School, I could not be more proud to claim President Judge Woods-Skipper and Administrative Judge Allen as our own. Temple Law has an enduring reputation for supplying leaders to the Philadelphia community, and I can think of no finer examples than these two women. They are brilliant, hard-working, passionate members of the judiciary who have devoted themselves to this profession and this city, and we are extraordinarily proud of them.
President Judge Woods-Skipper, who attended Temple Law’s evening division, has drawn on her experiences growing up in North Philadelphia to make access to justice a core mission for the First Judicial District. As she explained to then-Chancellor of the Bar Association Bill Fedullo in a 2012 interview, “People have to really believe and understand that we have an equal playing field, that there’s not one system of justice for one group of people who are privileged or the insiders and another system of justice for others.” Her leadership, and now her visibility in this new role, should serve as a beacon for African American women lawyers and a clear signal throughout the community that we all have contributions to make to the cause of justice.
“With these appointments, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has signaled its willingness to listen to African American leaders who have been calling for more diversity in leadership positions within the state judicial system.”
Administrative Judge Allen, likewise, has dedicated her professional life to the people of this community. As administrative judge for the Trial Division – with 67 judges, the largest of the three that together comprise the First Judicial District – she has made her first priority the efficient and effective implementation of policies that make access to justice possible for everyone. The anticipated fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which gives people sentenced to life imprisonment as juveniles another chance at release, is a great example. More than 300 such cases are expected to flood the Philadelphia court system in the coming months, and Judge Allen has made it her goal to ensure that the courts are ready to handle the volume. It may not be glamorous work, but it is critically important to the actual administration of – and therefore access to – justice.
The Supreme Court would do well to continue listening to the call for increased diversity and to apply this enhanced view of leadership criteria to other bodies subject to its governance. I am encouraged by the Court’s actions in the First Judicial District and hopeful that it will continue to pursue opportunities for more balanced and diverse leadership throughout the Commonwealth.
At the end of the day, as often happens, my thoughts about this historic, and hopefully transformative, moment come back to one question: “What can I do?” As Dean, and as a proud member of this community and this profession, I will continue to do everything I can to ensure that Temple Law School remains what it has always been: a place committed to producing graduates poised to lead and make a difference. We have contributed to history and to progress, but much work remains to be done. I look forward to doing it together.