Q&A with Judge Derwin Rushing, Candidate for Magisterial District Judge 5-2-40

Judge Derwin Rushing

I have virtually eliminated cash bail from my practice and doing so only in extenuating circumstances to protect the safety of the community or ensure court appearance.

The variables in each and every criminal arrest are too involved to discuss here, but it cannot be denied that in using cash bail, those without cash are at a distinct disadvantage.  Given that the net worth of the average white household is ten times greater than that of the average black household, it is too obvious to argue that cash bail would have a much greater impact on households of color.

Your Name: Judge Derwin Rushing
Your Pronouns:  He/Him/His
The Office You Seek: Magisterial District Judge, district 5-2-40 (city of Pittsburgh, Northside, East Ohio Street office)

How do you describe your identity? I am a cisgender, white, heterosexual male

Tell us about the first LGBTQ person you met and what impact they had on your life?

A friend from high school and I went to the same college in the 1970s.  We would often ride across the state to go home together during holidays, and it was during this time when he confided in me that he was gay.  I was witness to the struggles and agony he experienced while coming out to family and friends almost fifty years ago, a very different time then the present day in some ways.  As a dear friend and the first person I knew as openly gay, his honesty with me about his orientation and his ongoing, daily struggles to live into his best self meant a lot then and continues to impact my life now.  Our 50+ year friendship remains strong and I have learned much from him over the decades regarding the daily effects and harm of discrimination of marginalized communities.

Please tell me about your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district and the region.

On May 20, 2014 when same-sex unions were finally recognized in Pennsylvania, I was honored that shortly thereafter a Northside neighbor asked me to officiate at his wedding ceremony.  My then fourteen year old daughter accompanied my wife and I in attending the ceremony.  As I pronounced their union, tears of celebration were flowing from everyone, tears of joy for an event long-deferred and finally, finally realized.  My daughter was a witness to our tears and the tears of other celebrants, and she looked at us both and asked what the big deal was all about?  She was not understanding why there were more tears than any other wedding she had attended.  We smiled and I agreed with her – this shouldn’t be a big deal but for today, it was.  But moving forward, nope, not any more of a ‘big deal’ than any of the weddings happening that day.  Thankfully, I have been honored to perform many weddings for same-sex couples over the past seven years.  In my opinion, how two consenting adults express their love for one another is no business of mine and certainly not that of any government.

Most of my personal experience and familiarity with the LGBTQIA+ community in our region other than local friends and members our faith congregation have come from knowing many of the singers of the Renaissance City Choirs and familiarity with their organization since my wife was the music director for the Renaissance City Men’s Choir in the 1990s.  RCMC is Pittsburgh’s gay men’s choir, and at that time my spouse was the only cisgender hetero female conductor of a predominantly male LGBTQ choir in the United States.  During her tenure I was privileged to get to know many of the men as friends, and heard their heartbreaking stories of rejection over the decades by family and religious institutions, and I began to appreciate the deep resilience of the LGBTQIA+ community in Pittsburgh.  It was also inspiring to witness the power of change through music when performed by this long-standing Pittsburgh organization.  Even now, we have continued friendships with many of the past and present members of RCC.

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.

I agree – there is often and currently a good deal of misunderstanding and just plain wrong information in the community, from the electorate at-large to candidates themselves, about the role of Magisterial District Judge (MDJ) in the city of Pittsburgh. The work of the MDJ in the city of Pittsburgh is unlike the work of an MDJ anywhere else in the state of Pennsylvania, and therefore is, quite frankly, a bit confusing.

The information usually disseminated is taken from Googling the role of the MDJ in the state of Pennsylvania.  This information is correct for the city of Pittsburgh but *only* pertains to a magistrate’s neighborhood court – in my case, the office on East Ohio Street for district 5-2-40 (Wards 21-25 of the Northside).  For the neighborhood court, the Magistrate in each district (13 districts in the city) hears cases that arise within their jurisdiction, including landlord/tenant cases, civil cases where the claim is a maximum of $12,000 (these cases may also be filed in the Court of Common Pleas), building and zoning violations, civil disputes, and private criminal complaints.

In the East Ohio office, I preside over 1,600 cases each year.  However, my work presiding over cases on the Northside only accounts for approximately 30% of my time in my role as MDJ.  This is a fair average for MDJs across the city to spend in their neighborhood court, although the breakdown may vary from office to office depending upon the size and ‘busyness’ of any particular court.

The remaining 70% of my time in presiding in court is spent in downtown Pittsburgh. All City of Pittsburgh Magistrates (unique in the entire state). Are tasked with staffing the Municipal City Court.  Annually I average over 5,000 cases each year in the Municipal City Court.  The seven different Municipal Courts deal with the most egregious, serious crimes committed in Allegheny County.  They are:

  • Arraignment Court:  All criminal arrests in Allegheny County appear in this court, with 72 hours of arrest.  Arraignment Court is considered the “ER” of the court system, operating 24/7 for 365 days of the year. While presiding at Arraignment Court, MDJs also handle all requests for Protection from Abuse orders, Arrest Warrants, and Search Warrants.
  • Homicide Court: All City MDJs are scheduled at least 12 times a year, 1x per month to preside in this court.
    Criminal Court: This is the preliminary hearing for every arrest in county (gun violence, robbery, fighting, drugs, etc.)
  • Domestic Violence Court
  • Child’s Court:  Any crime committed upon a minor, including sexual abuse
  • Traffic Court
  • Housing Court: A misnamed court (housing is basically covered in the neighborhood courts) and is now a miscellaneous court for anything not covered above.

With great challenges comes great opportunities to continue to dismantle the systemic problems plaguing our underserved and marginalized community members.

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 has your law education and degree served the people in your district while you’ve been in office?

There are no education qualifications in order to be a candidate for MDJ, none whatsoever (not even a high school diploma/GED) – only that the MDJ be a member of the PA Bar (having attended law school and passing the bar exam) or passing a 4 week course in Harrisburg.  If the elected MDJ does not pass the exam after the four week class, they cannot be sworn in and the seat will sit empty until they pass the test or until the next qualified applicant who wins the election is either a lawyer or can pass the test.  This four week course and test likely serves my colleagues well who preside in Pennsylvania’s rural counties, who deal with different concerns such as overweight trucks, loose livestock, Amish buggies, and the like.  In Allegheny County, a MDJ in Arraignment Court might arraign more people during one eight hour weekend shift than a rural magistrate might arraign in an entire year.

I have been a practicing attorney for 38 years.  I am licensed to practice in two state, in Federal Court, and in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.  I have tried many criminal and civil cases in both state and federal courts, and a number of appeals in the 3rd Circuit.  In my legal career I have experience in all areas of the law.

I am the only Magisterial District Judge (MDJ) candidate on the May 18, 2021 ballot in district 5-2-40 (Northside, East Ohio office) with a law degree and extensive legal experience — more education, training and experience than any Magisterial District Judge in Allegheny County.

The position of Magisterial District Judge in the city of Pittsburgh has evolved and today we are, quite literally, on the front line of the legal system, with all of the inherent challenges that come with performing those duties in a modern American city — both in our respective neighborhoods and in all seven of the Municipal City Courts.  The position has daily requirements and demands in which I am called upon to employ the full breadth of my knowledge and experience.   Frankly, I can’t imagine holding this position without full training in the law.

How does intersectionality inform your work?

The evidence of intersectionality is present every day in nearly every case brought in front of me in the courtroom.  There is such a complexity to the human experience, including the interlocking systems of oppression and discrimination for those who identify with any (or several) marginalized community/communities, and experience discrimination on a daily basis.  To me, adopting an intersectionality approach means acknowledging the complexity of our daily experiences, but particularly for folks dealing, on a daily basis, with sexism, racism, classism, homophobia and more.  No where more than the court of law is it evidenced how power, oppression and inequality are at work in every day life, including and especially our justice system.  My role as a MDJ requires a level of awareness and listening in order to render fair and equitable decisions.  I am professionally, ethically and morally bound to do all I can to recognize and break down systems of discrimination.  Much of this discrimination appears in court under the guise of exhorbitant fines, cash bail and the ways that those with substance abuse disorder and other mental health diagnoses are treated in the justice system.

My experiences and friendships with people who are a part of the marginalized communities in Pittsburgh have taught me and continues to teach me, as a cisgender white male, the immense value and deep imperative of listening, really listening, to people in the under-represented, marginalized communities in order for me to hear and empathize with their concerns.

It may very well be that the only contact, or the first contact, that citizens ever have with the judicial system is in our local, neighborhood courtroom.  As a trained lawyer and officer of the court, I feel an immense professional and moral obligation to maintain a court that is fair and just, as well as free of discrimination and bias to the best of my human ability.  I think that is all reasonable people ask – to be fairly heard and given an opportunity to state their case in a neutral forum in front of someone who listens intently and with empathy before issuing a judgement.

You first won this office in 2009. What accomplishments over the past 11 years give you the most pride?

As MDJ, I have professionalized the local office, serving as an efficient, informative and compassionate resource for our community.  I strive to make certain that everyone who enters is treated with dignity and respect.  I explain the legal process to all litigants and assist them, as much as we are permitted, in understanding the local court system and what they can expect to occur next in their case.  Everyone in our office understands that our daily goal is to serve as a community resource, not only for legal matters, but also in sharing resources and information of types to our neighbors, welcoming community involvement.

I am also greatly humbled, every day, to have the honor of serving a community I dearly love in a way that use my legal talents and experiences to better our neighborhood for all of our citizens.

Why do you want to serve another six year term?

We are facing unprecedented challenges moving into the last half of 2021, and beginning with a new term in 2022.  As a local community and society at large, there is a growing awareness of the systemic and inherent discriminations replete within our system, that for far too long have been tolerated.  With great challenges comes great opportunities to continue to dismantle the systemic problems plaguing our underserved and marginalized community members.

The law is my life-long, chosen profession.  Over the next six years, I am anxious to use (and expect that I’ll need) every bit of my training, experience and education in rooting out systemic oppression in our justice system. I seek another term because I want to be a part of facing and tackling these challenges – to continue to be a part of the changes taking place within the judiciary and assist in steering the Court system to reflect the very best of our community, for *all* of our neighbors.

What are your views on the bail reform proposals?

In my position as MDJ, I spend as much time in Arraignment Court as anywhere else and that is where bail is set. We arraign anyone who is arrested in Allegheny County for any crime.

There are two legitimate stated purposes of bail: 1) to assure the appearance of the defendant in court and 2) to protect the safety of the community.  Bail is not designed to keep people incarcerated unless one of the two criteria mentioned above suggests otherwise.

I have virtually eliminated cash bail from my practice and doing so only in extenuating circumstances to protect the safety of the community or ensure court appearance.

The variables in each and every criminal arrest are too involved to discuss here, but it cannot be denied that in using cash bail, those without cash are at a distinct disadvantage.  Given that the net worth of the average white household is ten times greater than that of the average black household, it is too obvious to argue that cash bail would have a much greater impact on households of color.

I am advocating for the elimination of the cash bail system, replacing it with a host of tools and support better suited to each particular defendant.  Addiction should be treated like a disease and removed from the criminal system.  We need more emphasis on treating the addict and not punishing the addiction.  Those with mental health disorders need to have their ailments recognized quickly and treated – not simply incarcerated with the predictable aggravation of existing problems and the creation of new ones.

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 Court of Common Pleas to learn that there wasno 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? (Editor’s Note – we now have a good relationship with this neighbor.)

The local District Court is not a court of record and any appeals from this court go to the Court of Common Pleas where a hearing is held ‘De Novo,’ that is, for the first time without reference to what the decision was in the below (the local District Court).

Most litigants that appear before their local MDJ do so under oath, but it is not “on the record.” A court reporter is not present and there is not a recording, thus the designation as ‘not a court of record.’

This is due to historical as a well as practical considerations.  The District Court is designed for easy access to the justice system – so that people might litigate their problems in a quick and efficient way, and be able to do so without the expense of lawyers.  There is nothing to prevent a party from appearing before the MDJ with a lawyer and bringing a court reporter, if they so choose, and in that way create a record that might be used on appeal.  This sometimes occurs.

I would feel uncomfortable making the District Court a court of record because most people appear without the aid of an attorney, and it would be a disservice of justice to put such people under oath to have them cross-examined on the record by an attorney, while the litigant is likely to be appearing without the assistance of an attorney.  The Commonwealth will appoint lawyers for people if they are charged with a crime and face potential jail time, but will not appoint lawyers for people in civil cases.  But, citizens can make admissions in civil cases that could be criminal and they would be doing this without the benefit of an attorney.

My immediate impression is that making the District Court a court of record would alter one of the pillars of justice and equity – that of being a low-cost, efficient way of litigating issues without great expense.

Most judges in Pennsylvania have a simple retention question on the ballot, but you have to run a full reelection campaign. Is that an effective process?

The position of MDJ is one of re-election, not retention (as it is in the Court of Common Pleas).  This is a positive to my thinking – there is something humbling and useful, as a candidate, in asking people for their vote.  And election, versus retention, helps to avoid the ‘robe effect’ that sometimes occurs in judges and faith leaders.  The terms of respect we use in these professions, such as ‘your Honor’ and ‘Reverend” are for the positions held and nothing else.  We sometimes forget that.

Tell me about your endorsements and supporters.

I am only interested in the support of the members of my community, the people I serve as MDJ.  Although I am a proud, life-long Democrat, I did not seek the endorsement of the local Democratic Party in my last 2016 election, and I again did not seek the endorsement in 2021.  The Democratic Party endorsement process in Allegheny County has ceased to serve its proper and intended function to recommend the best candidate.  The process has become a system fraught with consideration of things that have nothing to do with determining the best Democratic candidate to serve the people.

As always, my support has come from Northsiders.  I served our community for over 25 years in my private practice, assisting neighbors with legal issues small and large, and reflecting nearly all aspects of the law.  Everything I have – my home, my past business, my elected office – is on the Northside.  I am proudly endorsed by the people of the Northside and that’s the only endorsement that matters to me.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Holding the position as the Magisterial District Judge of the Northside in wards 21-25 has been and will always be the greatest professional honor of my life.  I love my work and am humbled by the prospect of continuing to bring my experience and training in service to the people of the Northside.

Where can readers find your campaign on social media? How can they donate to your campaign?

Donations are made payable to:

Committee to Re-elect Judge Rushing

912 Western Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15233




Other Q&A’s in this election cycle series. You can read previous cycle Q&A’s here.

Q&A With Bill Peduto, Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh

Q&A With Ed Gainey, Candidate for Mayor City of Pittsburgh

Q&A With Raymond Robinson, Candidate for Magisterial District Judge 05-02-42

Q&A with Bethani Cameron, Candidate for City Council District 4

Q&A with Hilary Wheatley Taylor, Candidate for Magisterial District Judge for District 05-2-19

Q&A with Connor Mulvaney, Candidate for City Council District 4



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