Q&A with Lisa Middleman, Candidate for Court of Common Pleas

Lisa Middleman
Lisa Middleman

Choose people who have demonstrated, throughout their careers, a dedication to the work that you feel is important and empathy and compassion for those who are impacted by the legal system. Candidates who have demonstrated a willingness to be involved in discussions about ways to improve the legal system, those who have been of service to people in need, and those who have articulated a plan to modernize and improve the courts for all people are my preferred candidates.

This is the 14th 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.

I first learned about Lisa Middleman during her recent campaign for District Attorney. She garnered a significant level of support from progressives across many communities. I asked her why she pivoted from DA to a judicial seat and her answer is pretty forthcoming. She is part of the ‘Slate of 8″ coalition along with include: Nicola Henry-Taylor, Lisa Middleman, Mik Pappas, Zeke Rediker, Giuseppe Rosselli, Tiffany Sizemore, Chelsa Wagner, and Wrenna Watson. We invited all of them to participate in this series, but only Lisa and Tiffany Sizemore responded.

Lisa clearly understand the overall criminal justice system and has a lot of progressive ideas to improve the quality of life for everyone involved, including the general public. I’ve learned a lot from reading her responses and I think you will, too.

Your Name: Lisa Middleman
Your Pronouns: she/her/hers
The Office You Seek: Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas

How do you describe your identity? cis white straight woman

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

I believe that bail funds are an incredible asset to our current criminal justice system. As long as cash bail continues to exist, it is invaluable to have a source of funds from which bail can be paid for those who do not have the resources to do so. People who are incarcerated pre-trial can lose jobs, housing, and sometimes even custody of their children.

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

I am uncomfortable giving much detail to answer this question, as I do not want to exploit another person’s experience.

The first LGBTQ person that I have known, I met over 40 years ago in high school. They participated in all activities as if they were heterosexual. It’s been years since they became open about their identity and although we have not maintained close contact, I have often thought about how debilitating it must have been to feel compelled to participate in life’s milestones in a way that didn’t feel genuine.

Please tell me about your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district and the region.
Up until three or four years ago, my familiarity with people in the LGBTQ community was with my friends and family members who identify as LGBTQ. When I ran for District Attorney, I became more familiar with the greater LGBTQ community groups and organizations that provide resources, support and advocacy.

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

I understand the top concerns to be the equal application of and access to the law regardless of identity, safe and proper housing for trans people in jail, bullying and harassment of LGBTQ students in our schools and the resulting increased interaction with the juvenile justice system, and lack of inclusion in current intimidation statutes of gender and/or sexual orientation. I look forward to continuing to be educated as a judge.

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.

There are 39 candidates running for 9 seats on the Court of Common Pleas. I suspect that most of the people who are running would be able to handle the technical aspects of being a judge. In that vein, I would look for candidates that have tried many cases before judges and juries. They will have an understanding of the Rules of Evidence and Procedure that are necessary in making rulings on important issues and have seen those rules interpreted both fairly and unfairly.

The more important consideration is judicial philosophy. It is daunting to try to figure out who is genuinely interested in making the changes that need to be made in our currently carceral system. I would suggest that those who are deeply entrenched in the political systems that have led to mass incarceration, systemic racial and socio-economic disparities and lack of access to the courts are not the people who are going to lead the courts in the direction of equity and fairness.

Choose people who have demonstrated, throughout their careers, a dedication to the work that you feel is important and empathy and compassion for those who are impacted by the legal system. Candidates who have demonstrated a willingness to be involved in discussions about ways to improve the legal system, those who have been of service to people in need, and those who have articulated a plan to modernize and improve the courts for all people are my preferred candidates.

In 2019, you ran for Allegheny County District Attorney. Why are you now changing course to run for the Court of Common Pleas rather than run again for the DA office?

My goal in running for District Attorney was not to be the top prosecutor. I ran for DA in order to facilitate the changes to our criminal legal system that could come through that particular institution.

After that election was unsuccessful, I sought to find another way to make lasting and significant progress in the fight to end mass incarceration and inequality in our legal system. When the extraordinary opportunity arose to put nine judges on the Court of Common Pleas who share those goals, I knew that I had to work to that end. If successful, the changes to the Courts’ philosophy will last for a generation.

I’m not comfortable sitting on the sidelines when we have a tremendous opportunity right now to make the changes that need to be made.

You worked for the Allegheny County Public Defender’s office, a resource that is often vital for marginalized and vulnerable neighbors. What changed would you make to that office to support clients?

I believe that the Public Defender’s Office should attain its independence by organizing as a non-profit organization, like the Philadelphia Defender’s Association. Currently the Allegheny County Public Defender is appointed by the County Executive, who also controls funding. This political influence upon an office that serves marginalized, frequently non-voting, citizens raises concerns about decisions that are made. I am thankful for the scrutiny that the Office has received from the ACLU and community organizations in the time that I have been there. WIth transparency comes accountability.

(Financial limitations currently preclude the greatest and likely most valuable change to the representation by the Public Defender’s Office, which would be providing for vertical representation for all clients. This is a system of representation whereby an individual would have the same attorney all of the way through the process, from arrest to resolution of the case, rather than one attorney for the preliminary hearing and then another attorney assigned weeks later for trial. This would allow for development of a trusting relationship and a continuity of investigation and familiarity with the legal issues and facts of the case. While the PD’s Office currently provides this type of representation for some very serious cases, all clients would benefit from this scheme.)

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

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not tracked by the Public Defender’s Office, or anywhere else in the criminal legal system, to the best of my knowledge. Although this data would be helpful in tracking disparate outcomes for people in the LGBTQIA+ community, privacy concerns have caused some hesitation in asking for that information. That said, there are probably ways to anonymously collect that data for analysis.

How does intersectionality inform your work?

For thirty-four years as a Public Defender, I have seen the effects of discrimination based on race, gender, socio-economic status, and their combinations, long before the term “intersectionality” became widely used. Because death penalty litigation requires that an attorney conveys, to a judge or jury, that each person’s individual experience informs their actions and other’s reactions to them, I have spent years investigating and putting into context the power dynamics that exist in our culture.

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

I represent marginalized, disenfranchised people in a system that demands their cooperation. It is very difficult for an individual to invest in and benefit from a system that excludes them and people that look like them. Public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judicial system can only be achieved when those participating see that all human experiences, including their own, are reflected in the decision makers.

What kinds of “changes to the Court system” do you envision to make it fair and equitable?

There are a wide range of changes we can make, both as individual judges and in partnership with the court as a whole, community groups, and partner organizations. They range from being as simple as staggering case start times (currently, they start at 9am with a “cattle call” which forces some litigants to wait many hours before their case is postponed), and text reminders for court dates, to broader changes.

We can eliminate automatic probation and parole detainers and pretrial incarceration for people who are not dangerous. We can add supports for victims, witnesses and litigants who have difficulty navigating the system due to developmental and intellectual disabilities. We can eliminate language barriers. We can instruct on trauma informed care and run courtrooms based on that instruction.

My vision for the future of the judicial system provides for working with communities to find solutions to the problems that end with people involved with the courts. Most of the people who end up in the criminal legal system have needs that are not being met. We must provide people with the resources that they need for support, education and treatment before they end up entangled in the judicial system. Those needs are much better met in the communities in which people live and work. I would advocate for treatment courts for people who suffer from joblessness, homelessness, poverty, trauma addiction and mental health issues that are not predicated upon pleading guilty to a crime in order to receive services. I would advocate for a greater use of a restorative justice model, so that the needs of offenders, victims and the community are all addressed and communities can be healed from the years of ravages of an unfair and unjust system. Ending lengthy unnecessary probationary sentences and ending the practice of incarceration for nonviolent offenses would go a long way toward allowing communities to buy into the hope for a better court system. We also need to find funding sources that do not involve the current excessive fees and costs that are currently assessed. Only when we address the systemic problems can we begin to restore confidence in a legal system that has been focused for far too long on punishment and incarceration rather than restoration and reformation.

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

I am actually the one who asked for the opportunity to complete the questionnaire. I think that it is vital for any person seeking public office to engage with as many different people, organizations, and communities as possible. By completing your Q&A, I am hoping to engage people who will continue to inform me if I am fortunate enough to be elected.

Tell me about your endorsements and supporters.

I have a broad range of endorsements and supporters. I’m particularly proud of my endorsement by OnePA and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers because I think these groups will be crucial partners to restorative justice and youth justice in forward-thinking courts. I am also endorsed by the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, The Gertrude Stein Club of Greater Pittsburgh, County Councilors Bethany Hallam, Liv Bennett, Anita Prizio, and several other state and local officials. The full list can be found at: lisamiddleman.com/endorsements

Is there anything you’d like to add?

With 9 open seats, this election is crucial. We’ll be setting the direction of the court for a generation. I encourage everyone to make sure they vote and remind their friends to vote for judges who will make our system better.

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

Readers can find my campaign on social media at:

https://www.facebook.com/LisaMiddlemanForJudge
https://www.instagram.com/lisamiddlemanforjudge/
https://twitter.com/lisamiddleman

Additional information and volunteer opportunities can be found and donations can be made at: https://www.lisamiddleman.com.

Thank you, Lisa.


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
  11. Q&A with Robert Disney, Candidate for Bellevue Borough Council
  12. Q&A with Cheryl Patalano, Candidate for Northgate School Board of Directors
  13. Q&A with Laura Pollanen, Candidate for Bellevue Borough Council
  14. Q&A with Lisa Middleman, Candidate for Court of Common Pleas

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