Municipal Court Judge Deborah Griffin exuded confidence as she looked up from her papers during a joust with a defense attorney in the Criminal Justice Center shortly after her reelection in November.
"It's your call, judge," the defense attorney said with a shrug.
Griffin peered over her specs. "Oh, I know it's my decision," she said dismissively. "These black robes tell me it's my decision."
But how much longer Griffin, first elected in 2001, will be wearing those black robes is open to question. Today, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear arguments in Pittsburgh that she should be removed for failing to report to the state bar association that she is a convicted felon.
Griffin was indicted on federal charges in 1984 in Atlanta that she used a fake Social Security number to obtain credit cards. She pleaded guilty and was ordered to serve three years of probation.
According to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which is composed of lawyers and monitors the conduct of attorneys, she denied on her 1988 application to the Pennsylvania bar that she had ever been arrested or prosecuted for a crime.
But citing her extraordinary life story - she is the single mother of an autistic child and grew up in a crime-ridden Harlem housing project - the lawyers' group recommended she be permitted to practice law. The court, however, suspended her from practicing until it allowed her reinstatement in 1997.
Supreme Court Justice Nicholas P. Papadakos disagreed with that decision. He wrote that Griffin had "chosen a course of lying and deceit to claw her way out of poverty and the plight of the disadvantaged. She appears to be exceedingly bright, but has unfortunately used her mental abilities in criminal ways to advance her career."
Today's hearing will be the second effort to unseat Griffin. Last March, the Supreme Court's Judicial Conduct Board lost its bid to reject her, when the court ruled that the board had no standing in such a procedure.
The disciplinary board then passed the fight to Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham and state Attorney General Tom Corbett.
Deputy District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg was tight-lipped about the case, saying only that "we anticipate the court will closely consider our arguments" that a convicted felon should not be a judge.
"To my knowledge, she is the only convicted felon sitting as a judge in Pennsylvania," Eisenberg said.
Griffin did not acknowledge several requests for comment. Her Center City attorney, Samuel C. Stretton, said he will argue that she has been an "excellent" judge and that the crime occurred long ago.
According to Pennsylvania law, "No person convicted of embezzlement . . . bribery, perjury or other infamous crime shall be eligible for office."
Stretton contends that Griffin's crime falls short of being infamous.
Griffin made her first attempt at judgeship in 1999 but lost. She ran again in 2000, backed by the Republican City Committee, and took office the next year. Last year, in a retention vote, she won another six-year term to the municipal court.
Griffin is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and holds a law degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law, where she was the first African American student to win the moot law competition.
In its 1992 recommendation to the state Supreme Court, the lawyers' board noted that she was "the widow of an abusive, drug-addicted man who encouraged her to commit the credit card fraud."
In her own mailer to voters when she first ran for a judgeship, Griffin said of herself: "Judges bring personal perspective to their decision process. My perspective matured from everyday life experiences and a sense of compassion for people."