PITTSBURGH — For someone who began her career at a time when many women who earned law degrees were offered jobs as secretaries, Judge Eunice Ross had to conquer one challenge after another on her way to becoming one of the first women to practice law in the Pittsburgh area and one of the region’s first female judges.
“I never foresaw then the suffering I would endure after I achieved a dream I had held since I was a child — that of being a public leader charged with the adjudication of other people’s disputes,” Judge Ross wrote in a 1997 book about her life titled “Justice.”
Her colorful career spanned more than 50 years until her retirement from the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in 2004. It was, at times, fraught with battles overcoming the prejudice found in a male-dominated field, as well as a few episodes of high drama. She made headlines in the late 1980s when she blew the whistle on a fellow judge, and she suffered the revenge of that judge’s political allies as he was tried and ultimately impeached.
“Back in Allegheny County, people would not get on the same elevator with her. She was shunned. It was a very ugly period for her,” said Robert Riefle, a close friend of Judge Ross and a former law clerk for various Commonwealth Court judges. “She is certainly one of the most honorable people I’ve ever met.”
Now retired to a quiet life of reading and keeping up with current events, Judge Ross, 92, of Squirrel Hill was honored recently by the Women in Law Division of the Allegheny County Bar Association at an event held downtown at the Engineers Society of Western Pennsylvania.
Attorney Jessica Ziemski, one of the event’s organizers, said the division wanted to draw attention to the jurist’s distinguished career. The group also used the occasion to give Judge Ross a surprise birthday party since she will be turning 93 this week.
“She is a pioneer among women attorneys,” Ziemski said.
Orphans’ Court in the Cold War
A native of Bellevue, Eunice Mercedes Latshaw attended Emsworth Public School and made the highest grade of anyone who had attended, according to a synopsis of her life that she wrote.
She said she graduated first in her high school class, first in her undergrad class at the University of Pittsburgh, where she attended on a full scholarship; she was first in her law school class at the University of Pittsburgh in 1951; and made the highest score on the state bar exam in 1952.
Her first job out of law school was working for the Mellon-funded Health Law Research Project that wrote health and environmental laws for Pennsylvania helping the state have cleaner streams, cleaner air and up-to-date health regulations.
She married John Ross in 1942. He died in 1978. The couple had one daughter, Gerry, who recently died, and a grandson, Ian Coleman, who is an actor in California.
As a young lawyer, Judge Ross knew she would need to pick her battles. One of those occasions came when she was appointed director of Allegheny County Family Court in 1960 and the court administrator was determined to pay her $10,000 less than the man who had the job before her.
“I appealed to the Board of Judges and they raised my salary up to what the male had made,” she said in an interview.
The court administrator held a grudge and she found herself having to work around him to obtain basic office supplies. He also refused to honor a longstanding request to repair a broken window in her office. He changed his mind after Judge Ross invited newspaper reporters to take photographs of the pigeons sitting on her computers.
By the time she was appointed an Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas judge in 1972, she had served many years as an assistant in Orphans’ Court. The chief judge had refused to appoint her as a judge in Orphans’ Court, she said.
“The chief judge said, ‘Congratulations, but this is a man’s court. We don’t have women judges up here,'” she said. “He sent me to Family Court.”
In 1978 when a new president judge came onto the scene, the first thing he did was get rid of the chief judge who had blocked her path. Then he appointed Judge Ross to the Allegheny County Orphans’ Court.
Orphans’ Court, mainly handles cases involving inheritance, estate taxes and wills, but it also has other jurisdictions including parental rights and civil commitment for mentally ill people.
“I liked the fact that so much of the work involved international work,” Judge Ross said. “Back then, many Pittsburgh residents had relatives still living outside the country in areas still under Russian control. I had to devise ways of getting money to people entitled to it without the Russian government confiscating it.”
There were other issues during the Cold War era.
“Russia was terrible to send money to,” she said. “During World War II, the Nazis destroyed all the records. So to figure out who was an heir in Russia was hard. I had to work with the Russian Bar Association to reconstruct records.
“Interestingly enough, they were all women. Russia was a bit ahead of us in terms of gender equality even though they were a communist country.”
But other countries created compelling cases, too. On one occasion, a priest traveled here from Czechoslovakia to collect money a deceased brother had left to his church. Judge Ross said she wanted to be sure he was legitimate, so she sent someone to the Vatican to confirm his identity. She also took shorthand while he testified in French.
On another occasion, she sent a court representative to Denmark to search for a relative. The lawyer found the heir destitute and was able to inform the man he was instantly wealthy.
‘Call heads or tails’
One of the defining episodes that helped shape her career was her testimony against former state Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen.
Larsen, who died at age 79 in August 2014, was impeached and removed from office. The 1994 removal followed several charges which included engaging in improper discussions outside of court with lawyers and Judge Ross, and then lying under oath before a grand jury, according to Post-Gazette news archives.
“I had a lot of friends who stuck with me, but a lot of things happened with people who avoided me because they thought I would be destroyed,” Judge Ross said. “He was a justice of the state Supreme Court and they thought he would only be reprimanded and keep his job, and of course he was over me because I was a lower court judge.
“People (at the courthouse) would get off of elevators if they saw me get on and they didn’t want to be seen talking to me,” she said. “You find out who your friends are when you are down, not when you are up.”
There were also lighter moments in her courtroom over the years.
Semi-retired Pittsburgh lawyer Frank Jones of the Creenan & Baczkowski law firm in Murrysville said he appeared before Judge Ross on many occasions. In an interview earlier this week, he recalled one case in the early 1980s where he was representing the son of a decedent fighting with his brother over some modest tangible assets, including their father’s automobile valued at about $200.
“Me and the brother’s lawyer were talking to the judge and she asked her bailiff if he had a coin,” Jones said. “She asked the bailiff to flip the coin and she told me to call heads or tails. I called heads. Heads it was. The judge said OK. Your client gets the car. She slammed the gavel and the case was over.
“I’ve been practicing law for 45 years and that is one of my favorite stories I tell when I describe the type of work I did as a lawyer.”
For a time while she was presiding in Allegheny County Family Court, there was always concern about people sneaking firearms in because no one was screened. A sheriff’s deputy guarding her once reassured her that she was in good hands. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, Judge. If they shoot you, I’ll shoot them.'”
Then there was the attorney who asked his client — a witness — to state his name. The man shook his head, snapped his fingers and said “Doggone it, Judge. I knew it this morning.'”
She remembers asking another witness if he would tell the court his name. His simple but elegant answer to the question: “Yes.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com