Pa. Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer has died; Debra Todd becomes first woman to lead court | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pa. Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer has died; Debra Todd becomes first woman to lead court

click to enlarge Smiling gray-haired man in a blue suit, white shirt, and red and gold striped tie sits at a wooden desk beside an American flag
Photo: Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer has died at 74 after nearly 20 years on the state’s highest court.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer has died, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts said Saturday.

Baer, 74, who was first elected to the state’s highest court in 2003, and became chief justice last year after Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor retired, died at his home in suburban Pittsburgh on Friday, the state court system said in a statement.

Justice Debra Todd, who is the longest continuously serving member of the court, will become the first woman to serve as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, the state court system said.

In a statement, Todd said Baer’s death is a tremendous loss for the court and Pennsylvania.

“Pennsylvania has lost a jurist who served the Court and the citizens of the Commonwealth with distinction. Chief Justice Baer was an influential and intellectual jurist whose unwavering focus was on administering fair and balanced justice. He was a tireless champion for children, devoted to protecting and providing for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens,” Todd said.

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered flags to be flown at half staff in Pennsylvania until Baer’s interment.

“I’m extremely saddened to learn that Chief Justice Baer passed away. He was 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,” Wolf said in a statement.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre) noted Baer was known for his work on behalf of children and families in the legal system.

“His admirable work in the area of foster care, adoption, and child advocacy is something that has had a monumental impact on the lives of countless Pennsylvania children and made the dream of becoming a family a reality for many,” Benninghoff said.

House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) said Baer was “a giant in the Pennsylvania legal community for more than 40 years,” adding that he received numerous accolades for his advocacy on behalf of children.

“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,” McClinton said.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said Baer served with distinction in his decisions on difficult and weighty issues.

“The chief justice was an honorable man doing a difficult job.  He was respectful, honest and carried himself with dignity and integrity. Those are all the hallmark qualities of a true public servant, regardless of title or position,” Cutler said.

A graduate of Duquesne University Law School, Baer started his legal career in 1975 as a deputy state attorney general. After practicing law privately, Baer was elected to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in 1989.

As chief justice, Baer oversaw the court’s decisions in pivotal cases stemming from changes in Pennsylvania’s election law, upholding the General Assembly and Wolf passed legislation to allow voting by mail.

He also led the court’s 4-3 decision selecting Pennsylvania’s new congressional map after Wolf vetoed the plan passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature. 

Baer also joined in Justice Kevin Dougherty’s dissenting opinion in the case where the Supreme Court threw out disgraced actor Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction and prison sentence. 

Dougherty and Baer reasoned that, although the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office improperly used testimony Cosby provided in a civil case after former District Attorney Bruce Castor agreed not to prosecute Cosby, the remedy was to suppress that evidence rather than making him immune to prosecution.

“We should not use Castor’s ‘blunder’ to place Cosby in a better position than he otherwise would have been in by forever barring his prosecution,” Dougherty wrote.


Peter Hall is a senior reporter at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.