By: Dan Packel
Law360, Philadelphia (September 13, 2017) — In its almost 300-year history, justices on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court have sported a shifting range of accessories: powdered wigs are gone, and iPads now join them on the bench. But if elected in November, Allegheny County Judge Dwayne Woodruff, a Democrat, would bring something never seen before: a Super Bowl ring.
If elected, Judge Woodruff would be the first African-American to serve on the state’s highest court in 10 years. Now 60, the Duquesne University School of Law graduate moonlighted as an attorney during his 12-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, in which he spent three years as a team captain and contributed to a Super Bowl win in 1980.
From the start of his time in the NFL, the star cornerback kept one eye on his next career, first contemplating a second act as a banker.
“My goal was to stay in the league for five years, put a good down payment on a house, get a car, then I could move on into my life’s work, as Chuck Noll used to say,” Judge Woodruff said, referencing his Hall of Fame coach with the Steelers.
But after those first five years — and four winning seasons, highlighted by a championship in his first — he elected to stick around and concluded he would be unsatisfied by working behind a desk once he did retire.
“I wanted to find something much more competitive than banking,” he said. “I wanted something that would give me the same feelings as playing football, and law fit that bill. The only drawback was that you couldn’t hit anybody, even if they deserved it.”
Woodruff wasn’t the first pro football player to set his sights on the law when he started at Duquesne University School of Law in the mid-1980s. Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page earned his law degree in 1978 and practiced as an attorney before and after his retirement from football in 1981.
And he wouldn’t be the first state high court justice with a Super Bowl ring. Page himself served on the Minnesota Supreme Court from 1993 to 2015.
But if Judge Woodruff defeats Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy, a Republican who is serving an interim appointment, in November, the odds of him staying on the court for as long as Page are slim. Pennsylvania voters approved a constitutional amendment to raise the judicial retirement age to 75 last November, suggesting that 15 years is the maximum term the former Steeler could see.
Not Just a Football Name
Name recognition in the western part of the state from his playing days will undoubtedly aid Judge Woodruff’s campaign in the low-visibility Supreme Court election, but he also carries 12 years of experience on the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County.
Most of that time has been spent on the bench in Family Court, and the judge says that matters from that court and its equivalents around the state will attract an increasing amount of the Supreme Court’s attention.
“A number of issues in the future are going to come to the court from Family Court issues,” he said. “It’s really the only growing court, not only here in Pennsylvania but across the country.”
And while five of the seven justices now on the Supreme Court, including Justice Mundy, handled appeals on the state’s Superior Court before joining the high court, he is not alarmed about any potential inexperience. Judge Woodruff noted that on Family Court he regularly handled de novo reviews of custody and other decisions, and that Justice Kevin Dougherty came from Family Court in Philadelphia.
“The justices are doing a great job,” he said. “Those who came straight from trial courts are not struggling.”
Judge Woodruff also emphasized that in his 17 years in private practice he focused on civil defense work, with a smattering of criminal law. He co-founded Woodruff Flaherty PC, now Flaherty Fardo LLC, in 1997, and by the time he left to join the bench in 2005 the firm had one of the largest real estate tax appeal practices in the state, he said.
And he noted that the Supreme Court has no minority members. Indeed, a person of color has not sat on the bench since Justice Cynthia Baldwin’s retirement in 2008. He said his election would add much-needed diversity to the bench.
“That’s an important aspect that we can’t lose sight of as well,” Judge Woodruff said.
The judge said that while transparency has improved across the entire Pennsylvania state court system there is room for improvement, and that the justices, who oversee the operation of all the state’s courts, can lead the way.
“Back in the day, justices — both federal and state — were in an ivory tower. You never saw them, you never dealt with them, they never spoke to anybody,” he said. “I think that time is long gone. I think we can become more open in what we do and how we do it.”
One step, he said, is continuing to maintain a robust public profile once on the high court.
“We can’t respond to any particular cases, but we can be more involved in the community and what we do. I go and speak to schools and various clubs throughout the county as well, explaining what I do, how I do it,” he said. “I think that helps, so that you know something about what goes on in the courtroom.”
Another part of promoting accessibility is reducing backlogs so that litigants have fewer delays before they can have their day in court. His home county, Allegheny, has made strides that can be a model for others, he said.
Asked about his philosophy of jurisprudence, the judge said it’s crucial not to lose sight of who the law serves.
“The law is for the people,” he said. “It’s to protect the people and allow the people to achieve their goals and dreams and their desires and keep anarchy and chaos from us.”
And while Judge Woodruff expressed concern about the state’s policy of electing appeals court judges — a perennial subject of debate in Harrisburg that has come under fire from a number of former governors — he said he was not ready to remove the people from the process.
“I’m not sure the governor should take away that right of the people of Pennsylvania to elect their justices,” he said. “Justices rule over the whole state, and I think they should have the opportunity to be a part of that process as well, and yet at the same time, the people they are voting for should be qualified to serve as justice.”
But his own idea of a “hybrid” system diverges from bipartisan legislation that passed the House Judiciary Committee in May, in which judges nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate would serve four-year terms and then face the voters in a retention election.
“Maybe there should be a committee assigned by the governor to come up with one or two names, depending on how many slots are available, and then send it to the people,” he said.