Of the four candidates competing in the Democratic primary in District 05-2-35 (the 7th and 14th wards) for magisterial district judge, three are men and three are lawyers.
Abbie Campsie, a therapist who lives in Squirrel Hill and is a member of Temple Sinai, is neither, although she’s one of three Jewish candidates for the position. Currently a volunteer as vice president of fundraising at Colfax Elementary School’s PTO — and the organization’s former president — Campsie said that her skills as a therapist “play into the magistrate’s position better than those of an attorney.”
“Most of the issues you deal with are not legal issues, but social issues,” said Campsie, who from 2010 to 2014 counseled students at the University of Pittsburgh with depression, anxiety and relationship conflicts. Prior to that, Campsie worked for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, providing guidance to clients dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and psychosocial issues.
“I have a background in helping people out of crises,” Campsie said, adding that the issues which typically come before magistrates, including truancy and disputes between neighbors, could be readily handled with her brand of expertise.
As a woman and a therapist, Campsie sees herself as “someone who relates well to people and can help in a big picture situation,” she said. “Women are more compassionate and think about things differently than men. And therapists are more compassionate.”
This is Campsie’s first run for public office. Although running for magistrate “is not something I always wanted to do, I thought it would be interesting, and that my background works in that position,” she explained. “Therapists are trained to listen and lawyers are trained to talk. Being a listener is a valuable skill in this venue.”
The other two Jewish candidates are the incumbent, Dan Butler — who was appointed to complete the term of Hugh McGough when the judge was elected to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas — and Mark Sindler, a criminal defense attorney in private practice. Both of those candidates were featured in a Feb. 24 Chronicle story. Butler has a background as a hearing officer in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, family division, and was a city magistrate for 11 years. He also worked as a family court staff attorney, representing women and adult children with disabilities in collecting support. Sindler served as a deputy attorney general in Pennsylvania’s Drug Law Division for six years, and has been an instructor at Duquesne University since 2005. He has been in private practice for 22 years.
Campsie, Butler and Sindler will face off May 16 against a fourth candidate, Matt Wholey.
The Wholey name is well known in the community. The candidate’s grandfather, Robert Wholey, was the founder of Wholey’s Butter and Egg Store, a retail and wholesale business that evolved through 105 years, giving rise to Wholey’s Fish Market in the Strip District.
“My family background makes me an ideal candidate for magistrate because it has given me the business acumen as well as exposure to diverse ethnicities,” Wholey wrote in an email. “Wholey’s is a melting pot of people and cultures that has been in business for over 100 years. From a young age, I was taught by my late father, who was a kind and generous man, to be gracious and accepting of all peoples, no matter their origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation. I would bring that cultural sensitivity to the position. And I will bring my firsthand knowledge of small business issues and my family’s reputation of integrity to the Magisterial District Judge office.”
Wholey’s legal career began in 1989. He has been a prosecutor with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office since 1996. He has led more than 400 trials and has negotiated settlements in more than 2,000 cases.
“This experience differentiates me from the other candidates because I am uniquely skilled in rules of procedure, evidence, search and seizure, constitutional law, and a myriad of other legal procedures and functions,” Wholey said. “These legal skills are directly relevant to the duties of the magistrate because a Magisterial District Judge handles legal matters within the community.”
Whoever wins the election will be following in the footsteps of McGough, who, among his other duties on the bench, opted to preside over scores of marriages, including one of the commonwealth’s first same-sex marriages.
In a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article published last week, Butler, who has said that he will not perform any marriages as a district magistrate, was asked about his refusal to do so. The article asserted that Butler, who is endorsed by the LGBT rights group SteelCity Stonewall Democrats, had “come under scrutiny” for his position on same-sex marriage. It noted that Butler was a board member of the Orthodox Union, “an umbrella group of socially conservative Jewish congregations that has stated it is ‘emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.’”
Representatives of SteelCity Stonewall Democrats could not be reached for comment.
Butler told the Post-Gazette that he has not done marriages of any kind “since a 2003 New Year’s Eve service prompted him to miss time that night with his family while his son was in a hospital intensive care unit. His son died less than a month later.” Consequently, Butler decided with his family that he would stop doing weddings. He also told the Post-Gazette that if he did perform marriages, he would perform same-sex marriages.
“We had a very bad experience that I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” Butler later told the Chronicle. “It corresponded to when I did a wedding. I do an enormous amount of volunteer work, and we decided that of all things to cut, weddings would be the thing to cut. I had a bad experience with a wedding, and that tipped the scales.”
Butler has a “long history of advocacy for LGBT and transgender people,” he said. “I represented them in family court in a variety of contexts.”
While working in family court, Butler had the option of which cases to handle. Among those he chose were advocating for same-sex couples’ rights to adopt children.
“I made it my business to help the people who needed the help the most,” he said.
Although Butler said he has only had a few requests to perform marriages since he took the bench last year, McGough preformed hundreds while serving as magistrate, including many marriages of same-sex couples.
“Judge McGough prided himself on the number of marriages that he could perform and that he performed the first same-sex marriage [in Allegheny County],” said David Pollock, a local attorney who has practiced family law for more than 40 years. “He had a collage of pictures of all of the weddings that he had accomplished. Some magistrate judges and Common Pleas Judges never say no, others perform wedding ceremonies infrequently and others do not.
“I truly respect Danny for not performing any marriages because to pick and choose would be discrimination,” Pollock continued. “That demonstrates the fairness which Magistrate Judge Dan Butler brings to the court. And it demonstrates the fairness that the other candidates who will perform all marriages will bring to the court.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.