The portraits hang in courtrooms all throughout the city, but no one remembers just exactly who the judges portrayed within the gilded frames are.
But in the modern era, a portrait can be more than a still image frozen in time. A portrait can provide context. A portrait can be living history, a filmed documentary.
The impetus to put together a documentary with interviews of Philadelphia’s senior judges came because the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas started identifying the portraits of judges hanging all over its walls, and the realization was reached that for many portraits there was no idea what the judges’ history had been, not even where in the courts they had presided, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe said.
The documentary "develops a picture of the court as it changes over time and really captures the personalities and the philosophies of these different individuals so that they will be there when everybody has forgotten who exactly that is in a certain picture in a courtroom," Dembe said.
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Ida Chen, a family court judge, has been overseeing a project with student interns in which they are inventorying and performing historical research on the hundreds of old portraits of judges hanging in City Hall.
The documentary portraying a dozen senior judges in Philadelphia comes at the same time as the issue of mandatory judicial retirement has become a hot topic.
There is a bill pending in the state Senate that, if passed by the General Assembly in two sessions and then adopted by voters, would get rid of the mandatory retirement entirely. There is a bill pending in the House of Representatives, if passed by the General Assembly in two sessions and then adopted by voters, that would raise the mandatory retirement age from 70 to 75.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court also has announced that it will hear arguments at its session in May in two of the three lawsuits filed by judges challenging Pennsylvania’s mandatory requirement that they retire in the year in which they turn 70.
Three of the judges featured in the documentary and interviewed by The Legal said they favor eliminating mandatory retirement.
"If the feeling is among the public that the retirement age should be extended, then amend the constitution if that’s the trend," Judge Victor DiNubile Jr. said. "I don’t think it should be done by litigation. And with due respect, there are some excellent lawyers representing the judges on these cases, but it’s more of a legislative process than a legal one."
Judge Ricardo C. Jackson, who is believed to be the longest serving judge in Pennsylvania at 35 years, said, "I think the citizens and the public are getting the short end of this because they lose so much talent and experience" due to mandatory retirement.
Experienced judges are "the judges that you want to keep: Those who can move cases and resolve cases," Jackson said.
But if judges can’t do it physically or mentally anymore, that’s a different story, Jackson said.
Judge Robert J. Matthews also disagreed that senior judges should be forced to retire because 80 is the new 70.
But Matthews said that it should be like the federal system in which judges who stay on later in life no longer can go into administrative positions.
And Matthews also said he understands the argument that older judges do need to bow out so that younger people may be able to become judges.
When DiNubile’s father was a judge, there were fewer judges so they had more power, DiNubile said.
But court criers might have had even more power regarding access. In those days, "you couldn’t get to the judge," DiNubile said. "You had to go to the crier."
Matthews said being a judge is a much lonelier job than anyone thinks it is.
"We share and we commiserate and we do what is necessary to assist each other but we don’t discuss our cases with each other," Matthews said. "The decision, the buck stops here. I can’t ask anyone else.
"It really is a much more lonelier job than anybody can think about. Who am I gonna ask what I’m gonna do?"
Matthews, who sits in family court, said that cases involving families are the hardest.
"What we’re dealing with is little babies, the lives of children, their future, how you handle it, how you represent yourself, how you come off to the children," Matthews said.
Matthews said he once had a little boy who wouldn’t talk to him. But the judge recounted that when he took off his robe and went to talk to the boy, the youngster told Matthews he didn’t talk to him because "’I don’t talk to men who wear black dresses.’"
The biggest change that has come to the court has been electronic filing in civil cases, Jackson said.
The court is doing very well in terms of diversity, Jackson said, both in terms of female judges and minorities.
Both DiNubile and Jackson said that the FJD is an ethical institution despite scandals like allegations of ticket-fixing in Philadelphia Traffic Court and over a dozen Philadelphia judges being implicated in a scandal involving cash gifts from roofers’ union officials.
"I believe the court system in Philadelphia does a fine job, although we’ve had our ups and downs," DiNubile said.
One of the highlights of the documentary is an interview with the late Senior Judge Albert W. Sheppard.
In the documentary, Sheppard said that some judges become imperious once they join the bench, but they can’t forget where they came from.
"Any judge that doesn’t remember where he came from is dumb, just plain dumb," Sheppard said.
Two law interns, Geoffrey Johnson and Stephen Chaing, filmed the documentary.
The judges portrayed in the documentary also include Eugene Edward Maier, Carolyn Temin, Alfred J. DiBona Jr., Norman Ackerman, A. Frank Reynolds, John J. O’Grady, William J. Mazzola and Mary Colins.
The documentary, The Senior Judges Oral History Project, premiered Thursday and it will be available on YouTube.