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Courts: Judges get their own verdicts from lawyers

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Every four years, the Allegheny County Bar Association releases a "judicial survey" in which local attorneys rank judges serving in county and federal courts. And each time, the ABA cautions that rankings should not be used to compare judges to one another.

But until there's a swimsuit competition for the judiciary, it will have to do. Thus, when the 2008 judicial survey came out last week, City Paper couldn't wait to see who came out on top.

Roughly 800 eligible ballots were turned in, ranking judges in four categories: impartiality, legal ability, diligence and temperament. In each category, judges were rated from 1 through 5, with 5 being "excellent," and scores of 2 or lower being "poor."

The big news is the poor showing by U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab, who has gained notoriety for presiding over the federal trial of former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht. Schwab's overall 3.1 score -- a full point below the average for federal judges in the district -- made him the lowest-rated judge serving in either state or federal court. Schwab scored less than 4 in every category and scored below 3 in both impartiality (2.8) and temperament (2.2). In a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story, a former colleague of Schwab's, Arthur Stroyd, suggested that hard-hitting attacks by Wecht's defense team may have colored the views of some lawyers. But there is evidence to show that Schwab wasn't highly thought of before he got caught up in Hurricane Cyril. He was criticized by lawyers in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary as having a "miserable temperament" and for his "arbitrary and capricious" rulings.

How did some other high-profile judges fare?

Thanks to a federal grand-jury probe into some Florida land dealings, county Common Pleas Court Judge Robert P. Horgos hasn't been hearing jury trials because an indictment, should it happen, would disrupt lengthy civil cases. Horgos earned an overall ranking of 3.5, scoring a 3.4 in legal ability. Meanwhile, Common Pleas Court Judge Gerard Bigley is being investigated in the same deal as Horgos, but he earned a healthy 4.0 rating. His daughter Kelly Bigley, meanwhile, did even better, scoring a 4.1 after being elected last year -- despite being "not recommended" by the ABA's judiciary committee at the time.

And while Allegheny County voters are often faulted for selecting judges with familiar names, the practice seems to work pretty well. Cyril Wecht's son David Wecht scored a solid 4.3; Dwayne Woodruff, the former Pittsburgh Steeler, posted a respectable 3.8. As for former City Controller Tom Flaherty -- a longtime fixture in the local Democratic Party -- Flaherty garnered only a 3.5 overall rating, a result dragged down by a 2.8 score for "legal ability." That's not quite as good as the 3.64 earned by Michael Della Vecchia, the former Allegheny County recorder of deeds, and trails former city Councilor Alan Hertzberg's 4.05.

And property owners take note: Stanton Wettick, the judge whose rulings insisting on accurate and timely property-tax assessments have vexed County Executive Dan Onorato, scored an impressive 4.71. Good luck with that appeal, Dan!

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