Superior Court Judge Debra Todd hadn't planned on running for Supreme Court this year, so she was taken aback by the outpouring of enthusiasm for her candidacy when it became clear two seats would be open.
Seven years into her first term as a Superior Court judge, Todd looked at her professional and personal lives and found she was satisfied. But after further thought and discussion with her family, Todd said she realized she had much to contribute to the commonwealth's highest court.
"I have realized the wisdom in those oft quoted words of John F. Kennedy, taken from Luke 12:48: "For of those to whom much is given, much is required," Todd wrote in her questionnaire to the state bar association's Judicial Evaluation Committee.
Todd is one of four Democrats running for their party's nomination for the Supreme Court and one of three Superior Court judges among seven from the two major parties.
On top of her experience writing more than 250 opinions a year for the state's frontline appellate court, Todd can tout an 18-year career as a litigator for major corporations, a midsized firm and her own boutique practice.
Todd, raised in a working-class family in Ellwood City, Pa., knew from the time she was about 12 that she wanted to work in the legal profession.
About two blocks from her childhood home was a lawyer's office where she worked during the summers as a filing clerk.
"I just became enamored," Todd said. "I just fell in love with the law. I knew he was helping people and they were coming and going all day."
After studying political science and drama at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Todd attended University of Pittsburgh Law School, where she graduated in 1979. Todd also earned an LL.M in the judicial process from University of Virginia School of Law in 2004.
Todd's career as a lawyer began as an in-house litigator with U.S. Steel. At the time, the corporate attorneys tried their own cases, she said.
"I had a tremendous opportunity to try cases at a very young age," she said.
After six years practicing corporate and commercial litigation, Todd moved to Cohen & Grigsby in Pittsburgh, where she became a partner practicing in complex litigation. After six years, Todd left to start Todd & Associates, a small plaintiffs' firm.
After her election the Superior Court in 2000, Todd said that while she found her greatest disadvantage was never having practiced criminal law, she learned it very easily.
"Everything I do on the Superior Court I feel more than competent to do," she said, adding that she embraces challenges to expand her areas of practice.
The Superior Court's massive caseload proved to be a challenge as well, she said.
"You learn very quickly you can't spend too much time mulling over your cases," Todd said.
Todd said the strengths that make her a strong Superior Court judge would carry over to the Supreme Court. Her early legal practice included commercial, breach of contract, products liability, personal injury, employment discharge and discrimination, and environmental litigation. Managing Todd & Associates, Todd handled similar issues from the plaintiffs' side.
Todd said the Supreme Court would benefit from a woman's perspective, noting that with former Justice Sandra Schultz Newman's resignation and Justice Cynthia Baldwin's departure after the election, there will be no women on the Supreme Court unless she or Republican and fellow Superior Court Judge Maureen Lally-Green is elected.
"It's important that the court represent the diversity of the commonwealth," she said.
Todd offers the viewpoint of a mother, a professional and a businesswoman, she said.
"I think the fact that I worked hard to get where I am means something. I think that resonates with the voters," Todd said.
Todd also said she has the respect of attorneys who know she has an even judicial temperament.
"I respect practitioners because I was a practitioner," she said. "If an argument is more like a give-and-take on an academic level, it's more pleasant for everyone."
Like several candidates in the Supreme Court race, Todd said she is mindful that voters may still be thinking of the 2005 pay-raise affair. The Supreme Court, in its 2006 opinion in Stilp v. Commonwealth, declared legislation that reversed the pay raise unconstitutional for judges but not for legislators.
Todd said she has returned her increased compensation to the state treasury with instructions that the money be used for medical and educational needs.
While she said the state judiciary deserves a pay raise, "I believe the legislative process was tainted," she said.
"The public really has a bad taste in its mouth from this," Todd said.