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Pa. Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer has died, replaced by first woman to lead court

Philadelphia Inquirer 10/2/2022 Diane Mastrull, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer, 74, hailed as a longtime advocate for children and families, died at his home near Pittsburgh overnight, just months before he was due to retire, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts announced Saturday morning. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Justice Debra A. Todd, who like Baer is a Democrat from Western Pennsylvania, becomes the new chief justice, the first woman to lead the state Supreme Court. Of the six other justices, Todd had the longest continuous service on the court, joining it in 2008. She turns 65 later this month.

“This is a tremendous loss for the Court and all of Pennsylvania,” Todd said in announcing the death of the man who had been working to ensure a smooth transition to her leadership upon his mandatory retirement in December, when he would have turned 75.

“Chief Justice Baer was an influential and intellectual jurist whose unwavering focus was on administering fair and balanced justice,” Todd said. “He was a tireless champion for children, devoted to protecting and providing for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.”

Baer’s replacement on the seven-member court must be appointed by the governor and confirmed by two-thirds of the state Senate. Whether that appointment will be made by the term-limited Tom Wolf, a Democrat, or his successor is not yet known. The state Senate is scheduled to meet only seven more times this year.

Baer was part of a 5-2 Democratic majority on the court.

Baer was elected to the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in 1989 and was appointed administrative judge of its Family Division in 1993. Ten years later he was elected to the state Supreme Court, where he served as chief justice just since 2021.

Baer was deputy attorney general in Pennsylvania from 1975 to 1980.

Gov. Wolf issued a statement calling Baer “a respected and esteemed jurist with decades of service to our courts and our commonwealth. I am grateful for his contributions and leadership in the Supreme Court.”

Praise also came from Commonwealth Court.

“The Chief personified all that is good about the work and the role of the courts, focusing his life’s work on meeting the needs of children and their families,” Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer said in a statement.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) lauded Baer’s service on the court, which he said would “have a lasting impact.”

“The chief justice was an honorable man doing a difficult job,” Cutler said. “He was respectful, honest and carried himself with dignity and integrity.”

House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, who represents Philadelphia and Delaware County, called Baer “a giant in the Pennsylvania legal community.”

“Throughout his career, he was a champion of the commonwealth’s children, earning multiple accolades for his advocacy,” McClinton said. “Most recently, Justice Baer had been a fierce defender of free and fair elections. I have no doubt that his legacy to Pennsylvania will endure.”

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, called Baer “a legal giant, a truly kind man and a dedicated public servant to our Commonwealth. His impact will be felt for generations.”

Wesley R. Payne IV, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, said Baer’s legacy will be one of “strong advocacy for children and families that led to innovative and far-reaching reforms with respect to the treatment of juveniles and domestic-relations matters.”

That included reducing the number of children in foster care and the length of time a child spends there, Payne said, and earning national recognition for Pennsylvania’s child-welfare system.

Baer was named the Pennsylvania Adoption Advocate of the Year in 1997, received the federal Department of Health and Human Services Adoption 1998 Excellence Award for Judicial Innovation, and honored as the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Child Advocate of the Year in 2000, among numerous other recognitions.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a law degree from Duquesne University School of Law.

Duquesne president Ken Gormley, a longtime friend, recalled Baer as someone who “always led by example as a caring, collaborative colleague who brought the Court together to achieve consensus whenever possible.” He also said Baer was a lifelong student of history who “presided with pride” over the state Supreme Court’s 300th anniversary at an event at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. It is the nation’s oldest appellate court.

Last month, he participated in the naming of the Thomas R. Kline School of Law of Duquesne University, after fellow alum, friend, and Philadelphia lawyer Tom Kline.

Said Kline on Saturday: “Max was a good friend to so many of us — an exceptional jurist, grounded in his commitment and devotion to his wife Beth, his children and grandchildren, and steadfastly the guardian of the rights of all citizens, but most particularly the children of our Commonwealth.”

Wolf has ordered that all commonwealth flags on state facilities, public buildings, and grounds fly at half-staff immediately until sunset on the day of Baer’s interment, which has not yet been announced.

Staff writer Jeremy Roebuck contributed to this article.

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