On Feb. 17, a Lawrenceville business-owner waited as each case ahead of her own was marked off the docket in the courtroom of Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus. That morning, Nauhaus had heard cases with charges ranging from reckless driving to unpaid fines. After hearing several cases on underage drinking, he quipped, “If it weren’t for stupid, I’d be unemployed.”
As the business-owner’s case was called, she rose briskly from her seat, her face stony, as though preparing for a battle. The male defendant in the case, a former vendor who had been charged with harassment and trespassing at her business, sat just a few rows away. He had already been convicted on the charges and was now representing himself in this appeal hearing.
After the woman took the stand, she told the court about her experience with the defendant that led to the charges of harassment and trespassing. At one point, she said, the defendant told her she could compensate him for the sale of a refrigerator with “a blow job.”
“Alright, listen to me, I have a president who talks worse than that,” Nauhaus said in response, addressing the courtroom. “That’s not guilty,” he said, overturning the harassment charge.
While women’s-rights advocates say Nauhaus’ handling of this case crossed the line, this kind of comment is not rare for him. His behavior in high-profile cases over the past two decades has seen him quoted in a number of newspaper pieces. And lawyers on Grant Street have often criticized him.
“Lawyers have called me,” says Sam Stretton, an attorney from the Philadelphia area with 45 years of experience, who has come to know of Nauhaus by reputation over the years. “Sometimes his demeanor and his comments are less than desirable for a judicial officer.”
Voters have the chance to oust judges they disagree with in retention elections every 10 years. Nauhaus’ last retention vote occurred in 2007. According to a 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, he was strongly opposed by the Fraternal Order of Police on the grounds that he was “too soft on criminals and anti-police.” However, he remained on the bench.
Now, at age 73, Nauhaus is officially retired. However, when he turned 70, he was approved for senior status by the state court administrator. Senior status allows retired judges to continue to serve the Commonwealth if there is a need.
According to David Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County Bar Association, senior judges can be assigned to any court in Allegheny County and give up their full commission to work part time in sectors where there are a backlog of cases or conflicts of interest.
But approved senior status doesn’t exempt a judge from criticism from within the legal system. “Nauhaus is no longer a part of the retention cycle, but senior judges are subject to the same codes of conduct as any other judge,” says Blaner.