Q&A With Tiffany Sizemore, Candidate for Judge, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge

Tiffany Sizemore

This has the potential to be a change election for our county. Nearly 25% of the court’s seats are open and up for election. It is clear that criminal justice reform is the order of the day and nearly all of the candidates in this race are astute enough to be able to speak the “language” of reform. However, what I would encourage voters to do is to interrogate what actions each candidate has taken during their career to advocate for or participate in reform efforts. Most of the candidates in the race are lawyers with many years, or even decades, of practice experience. But as a voter, the most instrumental question for me is to ask what have they done beyond their individual caseload to work on these issues systemically over the years.

Your Name: Tiffany Sizemore
Your Pronouns: she/her/hers
The Office You Seek: Judge, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas

How do you describe your identity? Cisgender Black bisexual woman with strongly progressive politics.

Please tell us about an underappreciated or little known asset in the local criminal justice system. 

The victim-offender dialogue program. In my opinion, it is a severely underused program. I certainly believe that there should be more options for diversion away from juvenile and criminal legal matters and that’s one reason I support the program. However, I believe that it’s a program that should be expanded to a larger group of cases, including very serious cases where prison is currently the only legal sentencing option. There is real power in healing conversations that consensual victim-offender dialogue could bring. I genuinely believe that an expansive use of this program can lead to lower recidivism and public support for less punitive sentencing laws for even very serious offenses.

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

This first LBGTQ person I met was me! I was 8 or 9 years old the first time I realized that I am not heterosexual. It was a little bit scary because I felt different from most of my friends, but it was such a strong awareness that it gave me peace of mind because I quickly accepted myself for who I am. In large part, I give credit for that to my family. I did not hear words of hate or fear of the LGBTQIA+ community or any other community for that matter. It would be many more years before I ever had language to come out to anyone, but I knew from the youngest age that if I had the support of no one else, I would have the support of my family.

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

I moved away from Pittsburgh after I graduated from high school in 1995. In part that was because I knew, as a young Black woman, that I could not thrive in this city at that time. As a teen, I was not particularly politically engaged and mostly just participated in LGBT social events and club scenes. Since I moved back to the city as an adult, I have still remained socially active but not necessarily politically active in any particular community.

My social justice and professional activities have largely been focused on court-involved young people. That necessarily includes LGBTQIA+ kids.

Based on this, what do you understand to be our top LGBTQ concerns and priorities for the Court of Common Pleas?

I believe that top priorities and concerns would include the protection of transwomen, especially transwomen of color. Specifically ensuring that the particular harms and violence to which they have been subject is part of the presiding judge’s consciousness and that those harms are not exacerbated by court systems. Additional priorities include: treating LGBT people with respect and dignity including the appropriate use of pronouns both in court proceedings and documents; recognizing the unique lived experiences that the LGBT community faces in this county and not minimizing or ignoring those experiences; reducing disproportionate levels of incarceration for the community and making sure that LGBT people are not subject to discriminatory treatment at Shuman Center and the county jail; reducing/eliminating implicit and explicit bias against LGBT people at all critical decision points, across all divisions of the court.

I believe there are 28 candidates vying for 9 seats on the Court of Common Pleas. That’s pretty overwhelming as a voter. Help readers understand how and why to choose whom to support in this primary election. 

This has the potential to be a change election for our county. Nearly 25% of the court’s seats are open and up for election. It is clear that criminal justice reform is the order of the day and nearly all of the candidates in this race are astute enough to be able to speak the “language” of reform. However, what I would encourage voters to do is to interrogate what actions each candidate has taken during their career to advocate for or participate in reform efforts. Most of the candidates in the race are lawyers with many years, or even decades, of practice experience. But as a voter, the most instrumental question for me is to ask what have they done beyond their individual caseload to work on these issues systemically over the years.

The Court of Common Pleas is divided into four categories: Civil, Criminal, Family, and Orphan. Help our readers understand the distinctions. 

Civil Division largely handles matters where people sue each other for money and appeals from some adjudication hearings (e.g., school expulsions, landlord/tenant manners, etc.).

Criminal Division largely handles people who are charged with criminal offenses charged as greater than a summary offense.

Family Division handles all of those legal matters that touch the family including: custody, divorce, child welfare, and it is also where the Juvenile Division sits.

Orphan Court largely handles trusts, estates, civil commitments, and guardianships.

Your career includes multiples Public Defender offices, offices that have a history of struggling to fulfill its mission due to being underfunded, understaffed, not given enough time to prepare, etc. What reforms and policies did you put in place to benefit the people your office represented? What changes would you like to see in the future?

During the 2.5 years that I was the Deputy Director at the Office of the Public Defender in Allegheny County, I did the following work that benefitted our clients directly:

Rewrote the juvenile division practice standards, which had previously been updated prior to the existence of Pennsylvania’s modern Juvenile Act. The new standards required juvenile attorneys to provide quality representation to each client by maintaining regular contact with clients, providing written discovery demands to the Commonwealth, engaging in rigorous motions practice, investigating all cases, thoroughly preparing for trial, and providing dynamic disposition advocacy.

Partnered with the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work to create the functional equivalent of a full-time social work component to the juvenile division. One of our social work interns and Dr. Shook were featured in Bridges, Pitt’s social work journal for the work that they did at our office.

Represented the office on several committees, as requested by Family Court Judges and Juvenile Probation. Most prominently, the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) Stakeholders Committee, the Model Court Committee, and the Crossover Youth Practice Model Team. A primary goal of each of these committees was to reduce the number of children in detention and to have more effective, community-based outcomes for our clients.

Additionally, I was a two-term member of the Juvenile Court Procedural Rules Committee and was elected to the Board of the Juvenile Defender Association of Pennsylvania. Both of these entities are hugely influential in juvenile practice and policy for the entire state. I am now the President of the Juvenile Defender Association of Pennsylvania.

I also oversaw a few important firsts during my time there:

  • An attorney that I supervised put on the first eyewitness identification expert in our juvenile court during a robbery trial.
  • Along with the assistance of our appellate division, I filed the first Petition for Review of Out-of-Home placement in the County. The Petition for Review rule was created to provide an accelerated mechanism for appeal of out-of-home placements for children who are removed from their homes at disposition.

I oversaw a rigorous training program that included topics such as: discovery requests and pre-trial litigation, thorough and ongoing investigation practice, cross-examination (both large and small group exercises), disposition advocacy, adolescent brain development, multiple service-provider visits and training, crossover trainings with our appeals unit on how to create an effective trial record, how to effectively spot suppression issues, and on effectively working with LGBTQ clients, which featured national trainers on the issue.

Pennsylvania needs statewide public defense funding reform. It is the only state in the country that has no state-level public defender funding. Poor people should not be held to the whims of local county executives for their funding. A statewide funding system would be more stable and has the potential to increase funding overall for public defender offices.

In Washington, D.C., I was a public defender at The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. That office is not underfunded and the attorneys there have appropriately-sized caseloads. They are paid on parity with the prosecutors who they oppose in court. The Public Defender Service is widely regarded as the premier public defender agency in the country and is a national model for how indigent defense delivery. I went through an extensive training program prior to ever handling a case in court case.

What percentage of clients of the Public Defenders Office are LGBTQIA+? 

I don’t know. However, in my legal clinic, approximately 2% of our current open case clients identify as LGBTQIA+. I don’t know if that number is determinative because those are only the clients who have chosen to identify that way. We may have other clients who are LGBTQIA+ but, for any number of reasons, have not identified to us as such.

How does intersectionality inform your work?

Intersectionality informs every part of my life, including my work. I am all parts of myself at all times – Black, woman, bisexual. I bring that entire lived experience into the way I relate to the world, and I will unquestionably bring it to the bench, if elected. But intersectionality informs my work because it means I see the people who appear before me as intersectional as well. I understand that the world relates to them based on who they are and who they are perceived to be.

Why does it matter that we have representation in race, gender, ethnicity, and other identities as judges? 

Diversity matters on the bench because all judges bring their lived experience to the bench and it affects their judicial decision-making. If we want a court system that values all voices and does not reflexively affirm the voices of law enforcement, then we have to have people who understand that the police are an occupying force in many Black communities, as well as other marginalized communities, around this county and this country. If we want to have judges who understand the lived experience of the LGBTQIA+ community, then we have to have judges who are from that community and who are deeply respectful of gender identity and expression in all its forms. If we want to have judges who understand intersectionality, then we need to have judges who are familiar with the work of Professor Kimberle Crenshaw. Allegheny County utterly lacks diversity on its bench in many ways. We have the opportunity to make a serious change to that on May 18th.

How have you dismantled the school to prison pipelines as an attorney? What would you do as a judge? 

I have worked intensely on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline in our county. My clinic does work at the intersection of the school-to-prison pipeline frequently. We represent children and parents in special education and school discipline cases. In that part of our work, we advocate for kids to remain in school and not be subject to exclusionary discipline. That’s because just one instance of exclusionary school discipline increases a child’s chances of ending up in juvenile court. In our special education advocacy, we encourage schools to avoid dangerous labels and language for children under 10 because it is the origin of how normative adolescent behavior becomes criminalized. In our juvenile court work, we represent children with active delinquency cases. We advocate and try cases with a focus on raising these pipeline issues with all relevant stakeholders including probation officers, prosecutors, and judges.

Outside of court, I do substantive policy work to around these issues. I work, for example, with the Black Girls’ Equity Alliance on school-to-prison pipeline issues. I do both small workgroup policy discussions and program creation with them. I also work with them on reports related to these issues and was a contributor to their most recent report from September 2020: Understanding and Addressing Institutionalized Inequity: Disrupting Pathways to Juvenile Justice for Black Youth in Allegheny County.

I was appointed by Governor Wolf to the state’s Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force and I currently serve on that task force. My subgroup has made substantive recommendations to the larger task force regarding adopting Philadelphia’s successful school diversion program as law in the Commonwealth. That recommendation has been met with substantial support from the larger task force and will be subject to a vote of the full task force on May 5.

I have trained lawyers statewide about these issues as a member of the Juvenile Defender Association of Pennsylvania board. I have trained lawyers about these issues nationwide as a certified national trained for the National Juvenile Defender Center.

I have also spoken out forcefully about these issues in the local media. I have also co-authored an academic piece on the issue with my research partners. “Attend School Daily:” An Examination of How Court-Involved Youth Navigate the School-to-Prison Pipeline, accepted for publication Diversity and Social Justice Forum at Chapman University Fowler School of Law, Volume IV, 2020

Your campaign approached me to complete this Q&A. Why?

We want to reach as many different audiences as possible. The LGBTQIA+ community is one that has too often been marginalized and ignored in our court systems and so it’s important that your readers know that there is a candidate in the race who is committed to hearing all voices and who will not ignore or marginalize anyone!

Tell me about your endorsements and supporters.

Here’s a list of our endorsements:

Organizations

UNITE
1Hood Power
Alliance for Police Accountability
Abolitionist Law Center – Straight Ahead!
Steel City Stonewall Dems
14th Ward Independent Democratic Club
Bold Progressives
Allegheny County Democratic Black Caucus
One Pennsylvania

People

Bethany Hallam
Liv Bennett
Pam Harbin
Jess Benham
Emily Kinkead
Lissa Geiger-Shulman

Additionally, I have been evaluated by the Allegheny County Bar Association and have been rated as Recommended for service on the bench.

This list of endorsements is consistent with my progressive politics and positions across the spectrum. We are grateful to have been endorsed by each of these people and organizations.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

May 18th has the potential to be a transformational day in our county. But it will only be transformational if we turn out the vote and elect nine progressive changemakers to the bench. Please vote and please bring friends and loved ones along with you to vote as well.

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

FB: https://www.facebook.com/friendsoftiffany

Donate: votetiffanysizemore.com/#donate

Thank you, Tiffany.


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

  1. Q&A With Bill Peduto, Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh
  2. Q&A With Ed Gainey, Candidate for Mayor City of Pittsburgh
  3. Q&A With Raymond Robinson, Candidate for Magisterial District Judge 05-02-42
  4. Q&A with Bethani Cameron, Candidate for City Council District 4
  5. Q&A with Hilary Wheatley Taylor, Candidate for Magisterial District Judge for District 05-2-19
  6. Q&A with Connor Mulvaney, Candidate for City Council District 4
  7. Q&A with Judge Derwin Rushing, Candidate for Magisterial District Judge 5-2-40
  8. Q&A with Alyssa Cowan, Candidate for Court of Common Pleas Judge
  9. Q&A with Anita Prizio, Allegheny County Councilor District 3
  10. Q&A With Tiffany Sizemore, Candidate for Judge, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge

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