In her 21-year legal career, Tiffany Palmer has dedicated herself to helping LGBTQ clients navigate assisted reproduction and maintain relationships with their children, biological or not.
After winning in the primary May 21, Palmer will likely secure a Court of Common Pleas judgeship, as Philadelphia’s constituency is overwhelmingly Democrat. Her name will appear on the city’s Nov. 5 general municipal election ballot.
She has represented same-sex couples from Singapore, China, France, Italy and other countries where they were unable to do surrogacy and elected to come to the United States to pursue it.
“As someone who was just coming out and experiencing the discrimination in our society back in the mid-’90s, it felt like a calling that I wanted to do LGBT civil rights law as my career,” said Palmer, an out lesbian.
The 1998 Rutgers Law School alumna is cofounder of LGBTQ-oriented law firm Jerner & Palmer, P.C. Palmer, 47, estimates 70 percent of her clients identify as LGBTQ. She juggles up to 100 cases at a time.
Beginning around 8:30 a.m., her days are filled with meetings with clients, drafting contracts, writing letters, appearing in court and managing staff, among other duties.
Some of Palmer’s cases have garnered public attention. In 2014-15, she represented screenwriter Lamar Sally in a surrogacy case involving his then wife, actress Sherri Shepherd, former co-host of “The View.” When their marriage hit turmoil, Shepherd tried to opt out of the surrogacy contract the couple had with surrogate Jessica Bartholomew, of suburban Philadelphia.
The child was conceived using Sally’s sperm and a donor egg. Pennsylvania courts ultimately decided Shepherd had parental responsibilities, ruling surrogacy contracts as binding for the first time.
“I knew that the end result would impact so many LGBT families that I felt the stakes were very high,” Palmer said. “If we got a decision that surrogacy was not legal in Pennsylvania, so many of my clients would be affected that I really felt we had to give it our all.”
In 2018 before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Palmer represented a lesbian who claimed she was unfairly denied parental rights to a child she’d had with her former partner using assisted conception via an anonymous sperm donor. Palmer’s client wasn’t biologically related to the kid.
Palmer pressed the court to expand the definition of “parent” to include people who had co-parented a child with a same-sex partner, even when the two weren’t married. The court ruled against Palmer and her client.
“Sometimes they’re just going to attribute a delay like that to lack of interest without fully understanding the cultural complexities of LGBT families and the history of disenfranchisement from the legal system,” Palmer said, noting it was one of the most “painful” cases she’s worked on.
While such cases have garnered wide-spread attention, Palmer said the standouts are the ones in which she helped someone maintain a relationship with a child they raised and loved, despite not being a legal parent.
“When I get holiday cards from a client year after year and I see and know that because of our court case they’re able to still see that child and see that child grow up, that means the most to me,” she added.
Lawyer to judge
As a judge of the Court of Common Pleas, the general trial court of Pennsylvania, Palmer’s job responsibilities would change. She’d be required to run trials, listen to both sides of a case without bias and apply the law to make rulings.
Pennsylvania has 451 Court of Common Pleas judges, as the state’s 60 judicial districts each have up to 93, one president judge and a court administrator. The judges are responsible for appeals from minor courts and those not assigned to other courts and family-and-child matters. Up to the mandatory retirement age of 75, judges serve 10-year terms, then run for retention, which is essentially a yes-or-no public vote.
Pennsylvania joins at least seven other states, including West Virginia, Texas and Louisiana, in using partisan elections to elect its judges, according to the American Judicature Society.
Court of Common Pleas judge elects can be assigned to civil, criminal or family court divisions, Palmer said. Palmer, who has a 12-year-old daughter, aspires to join the family segment because most people who appear don’t have legal representation, she said.
“In those proceedings, the judge has a really critically important role,” Palmer added. “The judge is the only person making sure their voices are heard and that justice is served and that they truly understand their legal rights.”
The importance of LGBTQ representation on the judge’s bench
Since January 2017, Naiymah Sanchez has worked as the coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania’s Trans Justice Program, which focuses on education, advocacy and leadership development to raise awareness of trans experiences with immigration, reproductive rights, mass incarceration, racial profiling and other issues.
Judges’ decisions have a great personal effect on people’s lives, Sanchez said. Not having members of marginalized groups, like the LGBTQ community, on the bench can create problems in how these communities are perceived, she added.
“We’ve seen a lack of cultural competency within the criminal justice system as a whole, where judges are just looking at the ‘criminal act’ or ‘criminal behavior’ as ‘this is the person,’” Sanchez said. “It highlights the person and not the systematic oppression that this person has faced.”
Sanchez stressed the importance of LGBTQ people voting in elections, including judicial races, and noted that many don’t vote because of misinformation regarding their suffrage rights.
“I don’t think people are informed properly, but it is very important because if we don’t vote, we’re stuck with people who are not like us, who don’t understand anything about being marginalized and oppressed to make decisions for marginalized and oppressed people,” Sanchez said.
Palmer said she hopes to bring this LGBTQ representation to Philadelphia’s court chambers. She plans to make small changes, like making court form language gender neutral, and larger institutional reforms on how the gay community’s issues are heard.
“The more diversity that we have on the bench that reflects the diversity of our city, the better off we are,” Palmer said. “I’m excited to be part of it.”