For the first time, two African American women will serve as the top judges in the Philadelphia court system, the state Supreme Court decided Wednesday.
The high court appointed Judge Jacqueline F. Allen as administrative judge of the trial division of Common Pleas Court, which includes the system's busiest and most prestigious criminal and civil courtrooms.
The court named Judge Sheila A. Woods-Skipper, already the president judge of Common Pleas Court, to chair the system's administrative governing board. The board pulls together leaders from the system's various branches - Common Pleas Court, Municipal Court, Orphans Court, and Family Court.
Together, the two women, both Democrats, will help control a system with a $110 million annual budget and a 2,400-member workforce of employees with no civil service protection.
Allen said Wednesday that her immediate priority will be responding to Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave people serving life sentences for murders they committed as teenagers a chance at release. She said she wants to efficiently handle the press of cases from the 300 inmates from Philadelphia likely to file appeals.
Allen, 63, who is to be paid $178,000 yearly in the new job, has been a Common Pleas judge for 22 years, mainly handling civil cases.
"Judge Allen is a terrific decision," said Common Pleas Court Judge John W. Herron, who once served as administrative judge. "She has been a leader on the court for quite some time in many different areas."
The appointments follow a lobbying campaign by black leaders, on and off the court. They pointed out that an African American had not served as administrative judge since the state Supreme Court created the powerful position more than three decades ago. Nor has a woman held the post.
"We're making progress," said State Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat from West Philadelphia who has been pushing for change.
The moves also end intrigue that began almost immediately after three new justices were elected to the Supreme Court in November - but before they were sworn in.
Justice J. Michael Eakin, a Republican, sought to rally support from other justices to fill the key Philadelphia court positions before the new justices joined the high court. His plan faltered with his suspension from office Dec. 22 to await an ethics hearing on his exchange of offensive emails.
Before the new justices took office, the court named Philadelphia Judge Margaret T. Murphy, the city's top Family Court judge, as chair of the governing board. With Wednesday's action, the newly configured court undid that action, replacing Murphy with Woods-Skipper, 58.
Finally, the high court formally abolished a position once held by Eakin - Supreme Court liaison to the Philadelphia courts. Before the new justices arrived, the court had been considering putting Justice Max Baer in that role.