Pittsburgh Left: Controversial Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus is still serving on the bench; it’s time to change that | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh Left: Controversial Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus is still serving on the bench; it’s time to change that

“He still puts on a robe every day. Quite frankly, I don’t believe that’s an honor he deserves.”

click to enlarge Pittsburgh Left: Controversial Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus is still serving on the bench; it’s time to change that
Judge Lester Nauhaus

On two occasions this year, City Paper first reported about two incidents involving Allegheny County Common Pleas Senior Judge Lester Nauhaus. 

We felt both cases were important, and that the public deserved to be aware of the judge’s conduct in these matters. Because of his senior status, meaning he’s technically retired, Nauhaus no longer has to stand up to the scrutiny of voters. His senior status is controlled by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court; a complaint to the state judicial conduct board is the only way to have that title stripped. While the first case, unfortunately, received little public outcry, the second, in which Nauhaus wanted to fine a defendant $1 for each of the six times that the student inappropriately and aggressively fondled a classmate, received national attention. 

So what happened to Judge Nauhaus, you may be asking? Not much; in fact, he still takes the bench in Allegheny County every day. He was removed from hearing summary-appeal cases and transferred to Orphans’ Court. This court handles matters such as adoption, estates, trusts, guardianship and estate-tax matters. So yes, he still puts on a robe every day, takes the bench and deals with the public. Quite frankly, I don’t believe that’s an honor that he deserves. In fact, after our reporting this year, I was confident that he would be removed.

But he’s still there. 

Here’s a quick review of those two previous stories, as well as some new information in both cases that City Paper has uncovered.

In the first, Nauhaus belittled a female victim who filed charges of harassment and trespass against a business associate. The victim testified in court that she was verbally harassed and “demoralized” by the way the defendant spoke to her. The defendant was convicted of both charges initially and was ordered to stay away from the victim. The defendant appealed his conviction before Nauhaus. Nauhaus told the victim that her charges were “silly,” adding, “If I found people guilty of harassment for inappropriate conversations, I would be here all day.”

Since the original case, the victim has entered therapy to deal with the reality that the “secondary trauma of the verdict is actually worse, because I discovered that my society doesn’t protect me and doesn’t care about me and I’m not valued.” At the time, at least, Nauhaus had kept the trespass conviction intact. However, CP has since learned that that is no longer the case.

According to the transcript from a Feb. 27 hearing obtained by CP, Nauhaus held a second appeal hearing with the defendant but without the assistant district attorney from the case present. In that hearing, Nauhaus dismissed the remaining trespass charge, without anyone from the district attorney’s office there to object.

According to the transcript, Nauhaus calls the case and the charges of harassment and trespass before asking his clerk: “Old girlfriend?” The clerk answers: “No, This was the coffee place.”

Nauhaus: “Wasn’t he here already?

Clerk: “This is a new trial.”

Nauhaus: “Oh. All right. This is the new trial?”

Clerk: “Yes. The commonwealth cannot proceed.”

Nauhaus: “The defendant is found not guilty.”

Clerk: “He was found guilty of trespass at the last hearing.”

Nauhaus: “He was guilty of … trespass, but not guilty of harassment.”

Clerk: “Yes. But now he’s not guilty of anything.”

Nauhaus: “He’s not guilty of anything.”

Clerk: “Right.”

Nauhaus: “Goodbye.”

And like that, the charges that Nauhaus called silly 10 days earlier were gone. The victim in this case says she was never informed of a second hearing. Neither, apparently, was the district attorney’s office. CP asked Mike Manko, spokesperson for District Attorney Stephen Zappala, about the second hearing. Manko replied, “The district attorney’s office was not notified a second hearing had been scheduled in the case. Although an assistant district attorney was present in the courtroom handling other matters that day, the ADA was not involved in the second hearing in the case. This matter was subsequently brought to our attention, and we have been reviewing the circumstances.” When asked for an update in the investigation prior to publication, Manko said he had no further information to share.

The district attorney’s office was also investigating the second matter that we reported on May 10. In that case, a student was convicted of charges related to assault of a female in the hallway of their high school (more details aren’t available because the record is sealed since the defendant was a juvenile at the time of the incident). The defendant was fined $300. On appeal, the district attorney asked for 90 days’ probation. At that point, Nauhaus asked the 16-year-old victim: “How many times did he touch you?” The victim responded: “I’m going to say about six times maybe.” That led Nauhaus to say: “A $6 fine.”

Assistant District Attorney Jeff Tisak fired back at Nauhaus, telling him it was “highly inappropriate to tell a young girl that inappropriately touching is worth a dollar a time.” Nauhaus ultimately decided not to level the fine and instead gave the defendant community service and ordered him to come back to court in 90 days. The victim wrote on social media at the time: “Getting told I’m worth $6? It crushes me. He might as well [have] told me I was worthless.”

According to the victim’s mother, that return hearing was held Sept. 27. Only this time, it was before another judge after Nauhaus’ removal from the summary-appeals bench. The defendant, who was shown leniency by Nauhaus, failed to appear and did not complete his community service. The original conviction was reinstated.

In addition, the victim’s mother tells CP that she and her daughter filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board on Sept. 25. Those proceedings are confidential, however, so there is no update on the status of the case.

These recent cases involving Nauhaus are just two more in a long line of questionable behavior regarding crime victims. In fact, when we first contacted the district attorney in March, we were told that in the late 1990s, “We dealt with the same type of conduct then as is being exhibited by this particular jurist now.”

It’s now the late 2010s, and here we are still dealing with a judge who has shown a lack of respect and compassion for crime victims. He sees these victims at their most vulnerable times and instead of offering them justice, he unleashes a barrage of asinine comments that work to revictimize these people. Since the publication of our stories, we have received correspondence and calls from many folks who work in the courthouse. All say Nauhaus has acted this way and worse over the course of his time on the bench. 

But there are things you can do. While Nauhaus' senior status is controlled by the high court, his appointment to the bench locally is controlled by the county's President Judge. Tell Allegheny County President Judge Jeffrey Manning (412-350-7387) how you feel. Just because Nauhaus is a senior judge doesn’t mean that Manning has to let him serve. To be fair, Nauhaus probably isn’t the only judge who should be removed from the bench (we’ve heard numerous complaints over the years). But voters never got the chance to say whether they wanted Lester Nauhaus to stick around during his “retirement.” Maybe it’s time that they do.

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