Three judges on the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas have retired this year, leaving three out of 10 seats open on the bench. The race to fill these openings will have an impact on Lehigh Valley citizens as judges decide the outcome of a variety of civil and criminal cases.
Among the current candidates are South Whitehall Civil Attorney Maraleen Shields, Allentown District Judge Rashid Santiago, Defense Attorney David Ritter, Civil Attorney Zachary Cohen and Civil Attorney Tom Capehart.
The Brown and White spoke with Shields, Ritter and Cohen about their campaign efforts and goals.
Shields is running to become the first Black and second Spanish speaking judge in the Lehigh County Court.
“First and foremost I do want to add representation of a different type to the bench and I think that in and of itself is very important,” Shields said.
Within Lehigh County, Hispanic or Latinx people make up the second largest demographic group at 26.2 percent of the total population.
In addition to her long list of qualifications, Shields feels her ability to represent a variety of people would serve as a benefit to the community.
“I believe wholeheartedly that I am fully qualified, as qualified as anyone running, to do this job,” Shields said. “I think I have the added benefit that I am bringing a diversity that no one else can bring to the bench, there is no other Black person running.”
In the event she is elected, Shields hopes to eliminate the mentality that English as a second language serves as a detriment to success.
She said she has been combatting this mentality by sending her children to Spanish immersion schools and programs in addition to learning Spanish herself.
“We treat the kids that only speak one language as the problem that needs to be fixed,” Shields said. “We should be meeting people where they are.”
In 2019, the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas had over 4,000 cases that required translators.
“It is important for women to see themselves reflected in the system,” Shields said. “It is important for Black and brown people to be reflected in the system.”
Ritter, born and raised in the Lehigh Valley, has over 24 years of daily courtroom experience. If appointed to the bench, Ritter said he hopes to bring his abundance of experience to make a more efficient and fair courtroom.
“With three openings out of the 10 allotted judge slots in Lehigh county, this is a once in a lifetime turnover of the judiciary in Lehigh County that will affect the citizens in our county for years or decades to come,” Ritter said.
He said that the judges in the Lehigh Valley Court have the role and responsibility of setting standards that are projected to society.
Cohen has been a lawyer for over 18 years. He said, as a civil law attorney, it is important to have a balance of judges who have both criminal law and civil law experience.
Cohen said the courtroom is a place where judges must legally put their political views aside and make decisions purely off of the facts presented to them.
“The courthouse is viewed by many as a place to be feared, and I don’t think it necessarily has to be that way,” Cohen said. “It can be a place of hope and it can be a place where people’s lives can be transformed for the better, and I want to help bring that attitude to the court.”
Each of the candidates said the pandemic has affected their campaigns by forcing virtual events and interactions, but all of them said they have been presently surprised by the ability for connections and outreach to continue within this setting.
The primaries for the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas election will be held on May 18. The option to vote via mail-in ballot will remain an option for those who wish to do so.