Exercising Judgment in the East End

When I asked Hugh McGough to sit down with me and talk about his campaign, I was admittedly most interested in the significance of electing Pittsburgh's second openly gay official (third in Allegheny County). I was unprepared for a thorough schooling in the ways of the magisteria, the judicial politics of the East End and a touching story of a child who believed he could never be a judge. 

In 45 minutes. While eating a sandwich at our meeting spot, Amani International Cafe on the Northside. 

Hugh has twice run for judge before, both time seeking a seat on the Court of Common Pleas. It has been an ambition of his since his youth – his father was a lawyer so he knew about such things as judges.  But as a young man realizing his identity as a gay person, Hugh was also growing aware of the reality that being gay was essentially illegal.  A violation of the sodomy law was a felony which prohibited one from serving on the bench.  That's an awful lot of discouragement for a young adult, but it seemed to infuse Hugh with more of a determination to use his powers for the good of the community rather than remain in the closet for the good of his erstwhile dream. 

Admittedly, I never really had this debate.  Even when I came out, it didn't strike me that (sodomy laws were gone in PA in 1972) that my life was criminal even while I was acutely aware that my life was reviled.  I've known Hugh for years, understood that he wanted to serve on the bench, but had no idea how that ambition was shaped by homophobia.  I never really thought about it more than the challenges of running as an openly gay man or perhaps enduring behind the scenes homophobia. 


Hugh is running for the Magisterial District Court (commonly known as Magistrates) seat in the East End, a highly revered bastion of progressive politics.  When the current magistrate announced his intent to retire, Hugh saw the oppotunity to fulfill his dream in a district disproportionately represented by voters who were familiar with him and his work.  Sort of an unexpected window opening after the previous election door swung shut.  Twice. Then sort of “hey, what about this?”  Hugh turned his eye to a different type of judicial role, one that is really on the front lines of sorting out the legal responsibilities, protections and so forth for all parties involved, before they turn downtown.  The magistrate can also be the final word on smaller financial matters (under $12,000 which doesn't seem that small to this social worker at all).

What I knew know about district magistrate judges was pretty much 1) they were very helpful when I had to evict someone and 2) two unsuccessful candidates in my district put their flyers through the mail slot which is illegal and does not bode well either for being lawful or setting aside their own self interests.   Neither won. **Note to candidates on the Northside – I'm paying attention.

Apparently, this is the last vestage of a dated legal system that predates the Revolutionary War.  Justices of the peace presided over the peace and eventually morphed into the present day magistrate who actually has a significant amount of legal work even while operating without a significant amount of required legal knowledge.  I kind of knew you didn't need to be a lawyer, but I was surprised that you don't even need a high school degree or a GED.  You just need to go to magistrate school for one month and pass the test.  Then you consolidate your power baise, raise your sons to run for Mayor and, oh wait … never mind.

I guess I was so taken with Hugh's professionalism about the position, his knowledge of the types of cases and his years of experience appearing in district court as an attorney, that I'm just aghast the rest of us don't take it equally seriously.  I can smirk a little because my magistrate – for whom I did vote – is a licensed and well-respected attorney, Derwin Rushing.  No violation of US Postal Law by him, thank God. 

So the East End may choose to elect yet another practicing attorney. Hugh's opponent in the race is City Councilor Doug Shields, whose paralegal background proves more legal experience than many of the seated magistrated and plenty of practical experience as in political matters.  The lesbians love Doug. I just wish he'd stay on City Council to protect us from yet another round of legacy leadership that will take a decade to mature into independent critical thinking.  Doug, why are you eroding the progressive base that keeps my family safe on multiple levels? I fee like we are doomed to political version of SORAS (Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome).

This could be one of the more interesting races the East End has known since … well, I don't know since when but I bet it will be close to what happens when Dan Frankel retires.  Minus the weeping (mine). 

In all seriousness, Hugh has an impressive resume, both legally and in terms of community services.  He has plainly put a lot of earnest thought into how he can combine his dream and best serve the people who have always had his back.  That's not a bad way to make a career move. 

How interesting for Pittsburgh that we have a four way race for a magistrate seat, a four way race for two City Council seats and a three way race for another.  I'm learning more every year how politics is local.


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