But from that experience comes a perspective that can only benefit those that might come before me as Magistrate: I’ll approach each person as more than their worst day or worst choice or most shameful story. I know first hand that we are all more than any one of those things and we deserve a chance to prove it.
This is the fifth post of our election season series ‘Political Q&A’ with progressive candidates throughout Pennsylvania. Candidates can be anywhere in Pennsylvania running for any level of office. Please note that these are not necessarily endorsements, more of an opportunity for candidates to connect with the LGBTQ community, progressives neighbors, and others with an interest in Western Pennsylvania. If your candidate would like to participate, please contact us pghlesbian at gmail dot com.
Hilary approached me and you know I like when candidates do that. I sat for awhile with the impact of a magistrate in Mt. Lebanon and Dormont before I crafted her Q&A. I saw her use of #justiceisontheballot and her affiliations with other very progressive candidates on a magistrate slate, something I haven’t seen before in this region. If we are going to talk about criminal justice reform and prison reform, especially about bail reform, we need to look more closely at the magisterial judges in our Commonwealth.
Your Name: Hilary Wheatley Taylor
Your Pronouns: she/her/hers
The Office You Seek: Magisterial District Judge for District 05-2-19 (Mt. Lebanon and Dormont)
How do you describe your identity? I am a cisgender heterosexual woman.
Tell us about the first LGBTQ person you met and what impact they had on your life?
Without disclosing personal information of someone close to me who hasn’t voluntarily entered the public domain as I have by opting to run for Magistrate, I can share that during my early teen years, someone I knew quite well came out as bisexual following a divorce from a person of the another gender. There was whispering, shame, denial and estrangement. I wasn’t old enough at the time to openly question why all this was happening, or why anyone cared, but it bothered me, and still does. To this day, the reaction I witnessed to this person’s identity is one I think about often, and it has shaped me in important ways. I am certain it has made me more compassionate and empathetic, traits I believe are essential to people we elect as judges in Pennsylvania.
Please tell me about your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district and the region.
Dormont- Dormont has really come together as a community to support its LGBTQ community over the past 4-5 years. In 2017, a small group of organizers formed the Hate-Free Dormont Facebook Group after members of the LGBTQ community were harassed. This continued to grow, with Hate-Free Dormont coming together to raise money to buy signs that say “Dormont All Are Welcome.” The Borough eventually approved the signs being put up at the Borough Building. For the past 3 years Dormont has celebrated Pride Week, with the celebration growing every year, but for COVID. Many members of my campaign are involved in the group that was known as Hate-Free Dormont, and is now known as South Hills United Against Hate, having grown in size and community.
Mount Lebanon- Mount Lebanon has a large LGBTQ+ community. Many people in our community make it a point to connect to Pittsburgh, joining and making use of various advocacy and social groups and institutions like the Persad Center, and (until recently, anyway) going into the city for events like Pride Festival. But there are definitely issues and institutions here in Mount Lebanon as well. There is a group at the high school called the Gender and Sexuality Alliance. Young people today in our community (and their parents) are particularly deeply invested in Trans justice issues, and there are currently struggles to get a gender-neutral bathroom designated at the high school and to demand that the administration stop puffing Chick-Fil-A.
Too often Judges and/or Magistrates do not take the time to learn or respect the litigant’s pronouns. Litigants are already in court on what is often the hardest day of their life. If they walk out of court receiving a court order misgendering them or hear a person in a position of power and authority disregarding their gender identity, it makes things even harder and could be inflicting unnecessary trauma upon the litigant. If litigants walk into a courtroom and are treated with disrespect, why should they then respect the magistrate or process?
Magisterial District Judges are perhaps the ones who have the most contact with constituents, but are often not well understood. Please describe the role of the Magistrate in the judicial system.
The Magisterial District Court is the first level of judicial authority in Pennsylvania and is the court where most people experience the judicial system for the first time. Magisterial District Judges are elected to serve in their districts for six-year terms and preside over distinct districts. I am running for Magistrate in the district serving the Municipality of Mt. Lebanon and the Borough of Dormont.
Magisterial District Judges handle all traffic cases, other minor criminal cases and civil cases involving amounts up to $12,000. They hear truancy cases for schools located in their district. They handle Landlord-tenant cases for residential and commercial property in the district. MDJs also set bail at preliminary arraignments and conduct preliminary hearings in misdemeanor and felony criminal cases to determine if the cases should be dismissed or transferred to the Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings. Magisterial District Judges, as officers of the Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System, may administer oaths and affirmations and take acknowledgements. Magistrates also serve in the 24/7 Arraignment Court located within the Pittsburgh Municipal Court on a rotating basis. They also have authority to perform marriages, which frankly sounds like the most exciting part of the job. I’d be honored to perform the marriage of anyone who asks!
That being shared, what impact does being a LGBTQ culturally competent magistrate have on the community?
Having a LGBTQ culturally competent magistrate can make a huge difference. Respect of one’s gender identity is the best example. Too often Judges and/or Magistrates do not take the time to learn or respect the litigant’s pronouns. Litigants are already in court on what is often the hardest day of their life. If they walk out of court receiving a court order misgendering them or hear a person in a position of power and authority disregarding their gender identity, it makes things even harder and could be inflicting unnecessary trauma upon the litigant. If litigants walk into a courtroom and are treated with disrespect, why should they then respect the magistrate or process?
But the enormous discretion that magistrates have to determine justice between parties in conflict is also a real opportunity for a magistrate’s bigotry or ignorance to express itself. A magistrate who feels uncomfortable with a person just for inhabiting their own identity, or who prefers conformity to some idea of “traditional roles” can very easily, perhaps even without being fully intentional of it, make decisions prejudicial to that person.
Along those lines, most people do not realize that magistrates are not required to be lawyers or even have any legal education in Pennsylvania. You are dealing with intricate matters involving evictions, arrest warrants, protection from abuse orders, truancy, and bail hearings among other issues involving very vulnerable neighbors. These are life altering scenarios that if not properly executed could leave legal loopholes to derail justice. Knowing people and understanding the issues is one thing, but knowing the law seems essential. How will your law education and degree serve the people in the district?
It is absolutely essential that any elected judge whose job it is to read and interpret the law, who is charged with making potentially life-altering decisions should have a law degree and actual real-world legal experience. All litigants, whether they are an accused defendant in a criminal matter, tenant in an eviction, or neighbors involved in a dispute are best served by judges with legal training and experience, beyond the short training course provided to non-lawyer Magistrates. I spent three long, hard years learning how to read and interpret the law and then studied for and passed two bar exams to gain the right to practice law in Pennsylvania and Ohio. That training and my 18 years of trial experience has prepared me to serve with an understanding of the system and a respect for the law and the rights of the citizens.
How does intersectionality inform your work?
I had what I would describe as a comfortable childhood, and enjoyed the security that being middle class, white, cisgendered, and otherwise in conventionally privileged categories, brought. Yet, as a woman, I found myself remarkably powerless and vulnerable inside a traditional marriage that became dysfunctional. Ultimately I went through a difficult divorce, which left me with personal and financial choices made even more impossible to navigate by the fact that much of our culture is constructed around male privilege. Facing the stark injustices of that situation– and being stunned by the limitations of my choices– have given me a level of empathy I wouldn’t have otherwise.
In many ways, I’m grateful for the experience. It has taught me that not everyone’s story is easily seen on the surface; that we are all more than the sum of our parts, and I understand that not everything can be solved with simple answers. Sometimes we need creative solutions and that is the type of Magistrate I want to be.
I also understand that we can’t look at discrimination of any one marginalized group or experience in a vacuum and that not all inequality is created equal. When social identities overlap, disparate treatment and discrimination are exacerbated and, as Magistrate, I would take an active role in combatting disparate treatment wihin the bounds of my discretion. To the extent permitted by the rules of conduct governing Magistrates, I would like my office and Court to be a community resource where all parties and communities have a place at the table.
Your website reads “we need to elect judges who understand the problems the courts face AND the problems they cause.” Please give an example of a problem the courts face and a problem the courts cause.
A problem the courts face: our criminal justice system, and society as a whole, is built on white supremacy, power over the “other” and is supported by institutions and systems that refuse to acknowledge their inherent biases. Massive reform is needed in all aspects of our legal system to right these injustices and make a system built on equity, fairness and transparency.
A problem the courts cause: the courts continue to criminalize poverty in a way that creates a lifetime of collateral consequences for the victims of that approach. Our legal system must change the status quo, by reforming bail decisions and the imposition of fines, fees and restitution so that the participants don’t spend a lifetime paying a debt to the Courts.
What are your views on the bail reform proposals?
I support the elimination of cash bail in favor of a system that requires consideration of capacity to pay, when bail, fines, fees and restitution are imposed. Cash bail in particular disproportionately impacts poor people, to no justifiable end.
I went before a magistrate when my neighbor’s dog bit my dog. We had witnesses, video, etc. He found in our favor, but she appealed. I was shocked when we got to the Court of Common Pleas to learn that there was no transcript, no documentation from the magisterial court except the finding. It created another level of “she said, she said” that made everything so much worse. How can we not have this level of documentation in 2021, the digital era? It feels like a lot of parts of this system are stuck in the 1980s in terms of technology and best practices. I’m guessing there is no interest in investing in the infrastructure? Or is it something else?
Magisterial District Courts are legislatively designed to not be a court of record. All appeals from the Magistrate are considered “de novo”, which means that one who pursues a matter in the Magisterial District courts and is dissatisfied with the outcome is entitled to a new hearing at the Court of Common Pleas level. Regardless of the evidence or testimony offered during a Magistrate hearing, or how the Magistrate ruled, the Rules of Court require that none of that be considered or even discussed at the Court of Common Pleas level. Related to your question about the fact that Magistrates are not required to be trained lawyers, this is an important aspect of the design of Magistrate proceedings.
Most judges in Pennsylvania have a simple retention question on the ballot, but you would have to run a full reelection campaign. Is that an effective process?
Truth be told, I believe that all magistrates and judges should retain their seats based on merit. I believe in transparency of the courts and would support any re-election or retention program that is truly based on assessing whether the magistrate or judge was doing a good job in the position. This election cycle voters are engaged in the process more than ever and hopefully that continues into the future, with voters remaining informed about who their judges and magistrates are, and whether their work has lived up to the expectations of the voters.
Tell me about your endorsements and supporters.
I have been endorsed by County Councilmembers Bethany Hallam and Bob Palmosina and by Dormont Councilmembers Kate Abel, Jennifer Mazzocca, Joanna Bouldin, Daniele Ventresca and John Moore. I have received the endorsement of the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, the Allegheny County Labor Council, the Teamsters Local Council, Grassroots Justice South Hills, M.O.R.E. (Mt. Lebanon Organization for Racial Equity), and UNITE!. I sought the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, and despite being in the race for a mere three months compared to an opponent who had nearly 30 years to earn the support of the Committee, I narrowly lost the endorsement vote 36-35. I’m so proud of the support my grassroots campaign is receiving from a variety of important community stakeholders.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
As I’ve been out talking to voters in Mt. Lebanon and Dormont, many wonder why they should care about who the Magistrate is. I believe that, to the average person, the Magistrate matters more than any other judge in our Courts. Each of us is more likely to encounter a Magistrate than any other judge in our legal system. Who that person is, what they’ve experienced, and what they value matters. While we all hope to never encounter the justice system, when we do, either as a defendant facing criminal charges, business owner, property owner or tenant, we want the system run by people who understand what it is like to be a normal person just trying their best to raise their family, make ends meet and live a fulfilling life.
People make mistakes, and Magistrates are the first judges they encounter when that happens. Whether it is for a traffic ticket, misdemeanor, or even a felony, Magistrates are the local judges who have the ability to determine how the necessary consequences impact their lives. Our legal system needs an overhaul and we have a chance to start with this election. We need judges at all levels to be aware that the system is broken, to the detriment of the average working person. As Magistrate, I will be fair and open-minded. I personally understand what it is like to struggle, to face impossible choices, even if it may appear that my path has been smoothed by privilege.
I have a perspective that many in my position lack: life hasn’t been easy for me the last decade as I struggled to keep life for my son and me as normal as possible while our world was quietly shattered by circumstances not of our making. I’ve found a way out, but that path wasn’t easy or lacking in some shame. But from that experience comes a perspective that can only benefit those that might come before me as Magistrate: I’ll approach each person as more than their worst day or worst choice or most shameful story. I know first hand that we are all more than any one of those things and we deserve a chance to prove it.
Where can readers find your campaign on social media? How can they donate to your campaign?
Thank you, Hilary.
Other Q&A’s in this election cycle series. You can read previous cycle Q&A’s here.
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