Gay-friendly candidates vying for Common Pleas Court seats

 With three seats up for grabs in the Family Division of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, gay and lesbian voters have an opportunity to influence the future of parental rights in the county. Kathryn Hens-Greco and Chris Ward, two of the 16 Common Pleas candidates, have received the endorsement of local gay and lesbian political groups including the Gay and Lesbian Voters Political Action Committee and the Gertrude Stein Political Club of Greater Pittsburgh.

      Both women have also received “highly recommended” ratings from the Allegheny County Bar Association.

      Ward is currently filling a vacancy in the Juvenile Division of Family Court left by the death of Judge Paul Zavarella. Hens-Greco currently serves as a court-appointed mediator in the Family Division. Both are known for their advocacy on issues affecting the parental rights of gays and lesbians, including second-parent adoptions.

      “Kathryn Hens-Greco has been the person carrying the workload on day-to-day family issues. She’s earned it,” said Chris Young of GLVPAC. “Chris Ward is running as an openly lesbian candidate.… If she wins, this tells people that you can be open about your sexual orientation and still win an election.”

      According to Hens-Greco, one of the problems with family court is that it takes a unique kind of individual to fill the role of judge for the court. Often, litigants are representing themselves, and cases presented in court are not “fine, nuanced legal arguments,” she said.

      Hens-Greco’s background includes social work and her private legal practice has centered on family law since 1987. She has had success in cases involving second-parent adoption rights since 1994.

      According to Pittsburgh attorney Christine Biancheria, who has worked extensively with Hens-Greco on second-parent adoption cases, Hens-Greco is not a politically ambitious person. “She’s a person who wants to help, and I think it occurred to her that as a judge she could do much better.”

      Hens-Greco agreed that one of the reasons she’s interested in becoming a judge is because she “would have the ability to bear [more directly] on issues.” She pointed out that her entire life’s work has been built around dealing with family issues. She added that, if elected, she is committed to serving out the entire 10-year term.

      “There is a problem in family court… that judges rotate out quickly,” Biancheria said.

      Ward practiced civil litigation cases for 21 years before taking

taking her seat in family court. “It’s definitely more rewarding than private practice; you have an opportunity to help these kids,” Ward said.

      Ward has been on Persad Center’s board of directors, has done pro bono work for the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force and has been involved with gay community organizations and events such as the Lambda Ball, Steel Party Pittsburgh and Shepherd Wellness Community. Her pro bono efforts also include work for Women’s Health Services and Planned Parenthood.

      “Generally, no one cares about the judges until they are faced with a legal problem and they end up in front of a judge. And I’ve heard, over the years, a number of people grouse about getting a judge they feel is biased for some reason,” Ward told Out. “I think it’s important for our community to be represented on the bench, and we’re not right now.”

      Young believes Ward “is the most viable openly gay candidate that we have seen in Pennsylvania, so she represents a lot all by herself. She has a history of supporting our community, and I think she sets a good example. None of the other [judicial] candidates [besides Hens-Greco and Ward] have really done that much for us.”

      In addition to Ward, Gov. Ed Rendell in February appointed Republicans David Wecht and Jill Rangos to fill two other open Common Pleas Court seats for the remainder of 2003.

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