Out candidates run for Common Pleas Court

Out candidates run for Common Pleas Court

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Three openly LGBT candidates have announced runs for 10-year judgeships on the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, which rules on civil, criminal and family matters.

Henry Sias, Tiffany Palmer and Wade Albert are running as Democrats in the May 21 primary. A primary win would ensure a follow-up victory in the Nov. 5 general election because the city is overwhelmingly Democratic.

The court currently has 93 judges. Currently, there are six vacancies, but others may arise as 11 incumbents whose terms expire in January 2020 decide whether or not to seek another term by running in the May primary. Candidates must file nominating petitions signed by at least 1,000 registered Democratic voters in Philadelphia by March 12 in order to have their name appear on the ballot for the Democratic primary.

Henry Sias, 42, is a trans man and civil-rights attorney based in South Philadelphia. He was unsuccessful in his 2017 bid for a seat on the court but made a strong showing and is trying again.

“If successful, my campaign will make history,” Sias told PGN. “There has never been an out trans man who has won an election to state or federal government in America, to my knowledge — let alone a trans man who became a Philadelphia judge. I’m running to demonstrate that Philadelphia’s court system is a resource for everyone, including people from historically disenfranchised groups like the transgender community.”

Sias is a 2005 graduate of Yale Law School who served as a law clerk for several well-known judges, including Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge Jane Cutler Greenspan. Between 2007-08, he was employed at the Center City law firm Blank Rome, specializing in white-collar criminal law, general commercial litigation, mass torts and political asylum. Sias and his wife Carey Ann Sias own a home in the Italian Market area. “Carey’s support has been instrumental in my career and I really appreciate her love and patience as I campaign again,” Sias said.

In August 2011, Sias cofounded Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, a nonprofit legal-aid organization informally known as the Expungement Project. The project has performed thousands of free criminal expungements for low-income Philadelphians, including within the LGBT community.

In April 2017, after an extensive vetting process, Sias received a “recommended” rating from the Philadelphia Bar Association to serve as a Common Pleas Court judge.

Sias told PGN he’s excited about the prospect of serving as a judge. “As a new judge, I’d obviously want to continue to learn from my fellow judges,” he said. “I’ve had the honor to clerk with two judges on this court, and so I already know the inner workings relatively well.”

This past August, Sias was appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf to serve on the 40-member Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, which has already held its first meeting.

Tiffany Palmer, 47, is an open lesbian who’s practiced law for 20 years, primarily in the field of LGBT civil rights. “I’ve represented the rights of more than 1,000 LGBTQ families over the past 20 years,” Palmer said. Between 2000-03, she served as legal director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights. The center now operates as Mazzoni Legal Services. Palmer lives in East Mount Airy with her wife Lee Carpenter, a law professor at Temple’s Beasley School of Law, and their daughter Ellie. The couple has been together for 18 years.

“I believe in equal justice and fairness for everyone,” Palmer said. “That has been has the foundation of my 20-year legal career. As a parent of a young daughter, I want her to grow up in a country where her government is true to these values.”

Palmer also pointed to the current political climate throughout the country. “The 2016 election of Donald Trump really was a call to action for progressives around the country. The way in which the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court was conducted and the #MeToo movement were a call to action for female candidates.”

Palmer said she’d like to serve on Philadelphia Family Court, a division of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. “I have the most experience in Family Division and would hope to be assigned there, if elected. I have 20 years’ trial experience in family court. Philadelphia’s families deserve judges with extensive experience and compassion for the diverse populations that come before it.”

Wade Albert, 36, is an openly gay attorney at Sobol Law Group who lives with his partner Peter Vasquez in the Graduate Hospital area. Vasquez is an obstetrician-gynecologist based at the University of Pennsylvania hospital.

Albert has been active with numerous community groups. “I’ve always been a community-minded person,” he said. “I was the head of the Center City Residents’ Association for a year and a half. I also served as chair of the endorsement committee of Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club for four years. I’ve been an advocate for LGBT equality for about 15 years.”

Albert said he’s skilled at resolving conflicts. “I’m a problem solver and I think there’s a role for that in the courts — whether it’s settling cases on the civil side or at looking to see how we can improve the delivery of criminal justice. We need courts to focus on treatment and recovery — and not just giving people who are involved in nonviolent drug crimes long prison sentences.”

Albert expressed optimism about the May primary. “I’m in this for the long haul. I’m not a novice to politics. I’m looking forward to making it to the finish line and getting past the finish line.”

He said numerous people have offered to help with his campaign. “It’s overwhelming the number of people who’ve come forward to help me with petitions, canvassing, those kinds of things. One of the advantages of helping candidates in the past — I have a lot of friends and broad support from neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia.”

Albert also said he has a lot to offer the court. “I’d bring [to the court] a very deep experience in many areas of the law. I started out doing civil litigation. My specialty is employment law and I handle discrimination cases [at Sobol Law Group]. I’ve also handled pro-bono criminal and family-law cases. I’ve filed 120 expungement [of criminal records] petitions for clients for free.”

Maida R. Milone, president and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said the nonprofit is monitoring the candidacies of Sias, Palmer and Albert. “Our organization has always supported diversity on the bench,” Milone said. “We look forward to following the campaigns of the three out LGBT individuals running for the bench in Philadelphia.” 

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