Philly City Council renames Criminal Justice Center for Juanita Kidd Stout

Justice Juanita Kidd Stout was the first African American woman appointed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Justice Juanita Kidd Stout was the first African American woman appointed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Posted: June 01, 2012

She was a pioneer in the field of law — in 1988, she became the first African American woman to serve on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. But Juanita Kidd Stout had been quietly crashing through barriers for years. Three decades earlier, she had been the first African American woman elected to a court of record in the United States.

On Thursday, Philadelphia City Council paid tribute to the jurist, who died in 1998 at age 79, by renaming the Criminal Justice Center in her honor. The 16-0 vote (one member was absent) ended years of wrangling over who should get the honor. From now on, the courthouse at 13th and Filbert Streets will be known as the Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice.

Just two months after Stout’s death, Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco and then-Councilwoman Augusta Clark submitted resolutions to name the center after Stout. Having finally succeeded, Tasco hailed the new name as "a stellar tribute."

Stout was "someone who understood folk and tried to help them from the bench in spite of their problems," Tasco said. "Just to have the center known for a person of her high standing is much better than having it known as the CJC, and it puts a human touch on it."

In 1959, Stout, a native of Wewoka, Okla., and a former music teacher, won a seat on Philadelphia’s Municipal Court. Ten years later, she was elected to the first of two 10-year terms on Common Pleas Court. In 1988, she was appointed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

She served about one year before turning 70, the mandatory retirement age. She then returned to Common Pleas Court, serving as a senior judge until her death.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell welcomed the name change.

Stout "was not only a brilliant legal scholar and a great judge," Rendell said. "She was a trailblazer who did incredible things as a woman and an African American."

As an assistant district attorney and later district attorney, Rendell tried a number of cases before her. "She created a number of firsts," he said, "but the thing that was so important about Judge Stout was that she would have been a brilliant judge at any level — trial court, Superior Court, Supreme Court, whether she was a man, whether she was white, Asian, Hispanic."

Stout spent time in the 1960s on Juvenile Court, where she was known for her toughness with gang members and other offenders. A 1965 Life magazine article said, "Judge Stout packs young car thieves off with a stern, ‘In my mind, there is no such thing as a joyride; theft is theft.’ And a mighty cheer goes up from parents, car owners and police." The article said Stout received so many threats that a 24-hour police bodyguard was assigned to her.

The article quoted her as saying, "The alternative to toughness is surrender. Are we going to turn this country over to cheaters and 14-year-old illiterates armed with bicycle chains?"

The justice center was built in 1995. Two years after it was built, council members proposed naming it variously after former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo; state Supreme Court Justice James McDermott; former Councilman Edgar Campbell Sr.; and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

The current ordinance was introduced by Councilman Mark Squilla with 16 other Council members as cosponsors.

Common Pleas Court Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper said of Stout, "To this day, she remains a role model for justice. We at the National Bar Association have been advocating for this honor for more than a decade."

Woods-Skipper is president of the local chapter of the association, the nation’s oldest and largest group predominantly of African American lawyers and judges.

Stout received many honors. In 1963, she was appointed as a U.S. special ambassador to the Kenyan independence celebration. Two years later, she was named outstanding woman lawyer of the year by the National Association of Women Lawyers. In 1988, she was named justice of the year by the National Association of Women Judges.

Jeffrey Brodkin, a lawyer who tried many cases before Stout as an assistant district attorney and a defense attorney, said she was a tough judge who demanded order.

"She had full control of her courtroom," Brodkin said. "She had everyone’s respect, with or without a robe. She was a dream to work with."

Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson, president judge emeritus of Common Pleas Court, said Stout "took me under her wing," adding that she "was a mentor to all young judges, not just blacks. She was especially supportive of women and minorities as we came along."

Contact Vernon Clark 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

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