In a historic ceremony on Friday at the Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, Debra Todd was installed as the first female chief justice in the 300-year history of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The 65-year-old native of Ellwood City was installed in a ceremony before more than 600 invited guests and included a procession of more than 100 black-robed judges from across the state accompanied by bagpipes.
She expressed pride in setting an example for young women.
“Today my heart is full of joy and gratitude,” said Todd. “Joy in arriving at this moment and gratitude for all the strong and determined women who paved the way and for those who supported me throughout my journey.
“It means the world to me to take the oath like so many distinguished jurists before me, while forging new ground for women and reaffirming my commitment to support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and of this commonwealth,” said Todd. “My path to this point has been guided by a belief which was instilled in me at an early age, that with hard work and dedication, little girls could achieve anything.”
“Today I share this historic moment with all Pennsylvanians, especially our children whose hopes and dreams will shape the future and make the world a place where nothing is out of reach.
“I realize I’m the first female chief justice, but I know I won’t be the last.”
Although she knew that this moment would be coming in 2023, Todd was elevated to the acting position sooner than expected with the passing of Chief Justice Max Baer in September.
Baer was planning to retire in December and with her seniority on the bench, Todd knew that she would assume the role. She administered the oath of office to Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro in Harrisburg on Tuesday.
A 1979 graduate of Chatham University in Pittsburgh, she attended both the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Virginia schools of law.
Todd served as a litigation attorney for U.S. Steel Corporation from 1982-87 and moved into private practice in 1987. She was elected to the Pennsylvania Superior Court in 1999 where she served for eight years before winning election to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 2007.
“She was a superstar from the start,” said Ken Gormley, president of Duquesne University and an expert on the state Supreme Court, to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “She could do all of the tough academic scholarly pieces of being a lawyer, but she was also a great courtroom presence. She could win people over by her kindness and her ability to speak in really understandable terms to anyone.”
“On behalf of all of the members of the Philadelphia Bar Association, I would like to congratulate Chief Justice Debra Todd on formally becoming the first female chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” said Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Marc J. Zucker. “This is an historic day for all Pennsylvanians, as we celebrate a milestone in the Supreme Court’s 300-year history.”
“Our community has been honored to work with Chief Justice Todd throughout her career, both as a member of the judiciary and during her time as an attorney. Chief Justice Todd has always been generous in lending her time and insights to the Bar Association community and we are excited to continue to partner with her in her new role. We know that she will provide strong and capable leadership to the Commonwealth’s highest Court.”
In 2018, Todd wrote the majority opinion in one of the most consequential state Supreme Court cases in recent memory – League of Women Voters v. Commonwealth – when the court ruled that a map of congressional districts drawn by Republican lawmakers was an unconstitutional gerrymander. The court ultimately redrew the map itself after the state legislature failed to reach an agreement on a new one.
The decision, while controversial and still a lightning rod for GOP critics of the court’s elected Democratic majority, survived challenges in federal courts. It also led to large Democratic gains in Pennsylvania congressional races in the 2018 election.
Since then, other states have cited the Pennsylvania decision in redistricting cases.
Once a year, she invites an AP government and politics class from Ellwood City’s Lincoln High School, her alma mater, to visit the court in Philadelphia. It’s taught by a high school classmate, and she has students meet all the justices, then has breakfast with them the next day. She promises the students that if they go on to law school, they can call her for an internship (three have taken her up on the offer so far).
Among her many awards and honors are the Women’s Bar Association of Western Pennsylvania’s Susan B. Anthony Award for promoting equality in the legal profession in 2017 and the Pittsburgh Action Against Rape Visionary Award recognizing individuals who have made a significant impact in the lives of survivors of sexual violence in 2016.
As the highest Court in the commonwealth and the oldest appellate court in the nation, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the definitive authority in enforcing Pennsylvania’s Constitution and laws. The Court supervises the entire court system to ensure that Pennsylvanians’ rights are protected and enforced through efficient judicial administration of the cases brought before them.
“I am proud of this Court – of the work that we do and the commitment that we share to apply the law, honor the constitution and simply remain focused on doing the right thing,” said Todd, who becomes the 58th chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
“Every case is of equal importance. While some may be more high profile than others, still others have greater consequences for people. We never lose sight of the impact that we have on the lives of all Pennsylvanians.”