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January 01, 2019 Waymaker

A Champion for Children: Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr.

By Judge Stephanie Domitrovich

Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr. was born in Pittsburgh in 1929. He graduated from Princeton University in 1951. While serving in the Marines at Cherry Point, North Carolina, in the early 1950s, another Marine asked him to represent him at a military disciplinary hearing, and Cohill won his case and many others. His Marine commander was so concerned that he was so skillful for the defense that the commander sent him to study military justice on the prosecution’s side. Judge Cohill was a U.S. Marine Corps Captain from 1951 to 1953.

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1956, he worked at the Pittsburgh law firm of Kirkpatrick, Pomeroy, Lockhart & Johnson for nine years while he and his late wife, Suzanne, raised four children. In 1965, the governor appointed him to fill a juvenile court judge position, and then he was elected as a judge, which was the beginning of his career in public service. Eleven years later, President Gerald R. Ford appointed him to the federal bench. He served as Chief Judge of the Western District of Pennsylvania from 1985 to 1992. Judge Cohill kept both civil and criminal Erie dockets, in addition to his full Pittsburgh dockets, from 1989 until he retired in 2016.

Throughout the years, Judge Cohill has been involved in many noteworthy cases and is best known for his decision in a civil rights suit leading to the construction of the Allegheny County Jail. He also ordered a cap on the inmate population to ease immense overcrowding. If that cap was exceeded, prisoners were freed on “Cohill bonds.” Sometimes inmates said they were “Cohilled.”

In the ’60s, Judge Cohill successfully raised $455,000 from Alcoa, the Richard K. Mellon Foundation, and other companies to finance his dream for a juvenile justice research institution. In 1973, Judge Cohill founded the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ), located in Pittsburgh, which is the research division of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and is the oldest juvenile justice research group in our nation, having conducted numerous national studies on crime and delinquency. For four decades, NCJJ has conducted research and provided objective, factual information to aid professionals and decision-makers in the juvenile and family justice system to increase effectiveness of the juvenile justice system. Judge Cohill remained as Board chair for many years. He also continued to volunteer his time, mostly on weekends, over many years with over 40 volunteer hours each month. Because of his devoted service, in 2002 he was selected for the Jefferson Award as a Community Champion, which is considered the Nobel Prize of volunteerism.

How did your background with children aid you in becoming a juvenile court judge?

I was active in a lot of young people’s affairs. I was a chairman of Termon Avenue Home for Children, which was a home for orphan-type children, and I was involved in Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, that kind of thing.

But I think it came from my work at the Termon Avenue Home for Children. I just looked at those kids, and what they were up against, and what they had been through, and really became vitally interested in their well-being. In my mind, the juvenile court is still the most important court of all the court system. You see more people. I used to see more people in a week of juvenile court than I see in a year in federal court. You know, you run through 30 cases a day in juvenile court. And it’s an entirely different world, but there’s a greater impact on more people than any other court has. Oftentimes the children’s only familiarity with the court system is the juvenile court, and that’s why I think it’s vitally important, and that’s why I was there.

What were your duties as a juvenile court judge, and how did your role change, if any, over the years in juvenile court?

Juvenile court in those days was a separate court. A juvenile court judge could not sit in another court. Under the laws then, a county court judge could come and sit in the juvenile court if the judge at that time was going on vacation or something like that. But as a juvenile court judge, you couldn’t sit on another court.

Judge Rogers, the judge at that time, became ill. He was the incumbent at the time. He became ill and had not retired and couldn’t handle the bench anymore. But one of the lawyers from the law firm was on the judicial selection committee and had been appointed to find a judge for this vacancy. And he came home from one of their meetings, and he asked if I was interested in filling the vacancy. Governor Scranton was going to appoint somebody, and that somebody was going to have to run the following November. I said, I guess I’m interested, but I’m Republican, and it’s hard for Republicans to get elected to anything in Allegheny County, and, of course, Governor Scranton was Republican. So, I went to the managing partner; I said, “I’d like to do this, but if I’m defeated, would you guys take me back?” And they said, yeah, they’d take me back, so as far as I was concerned, that cleared the way to accept the appointment and run for juvenile court. I was fortunate enough to be elected that November to a full 10-year judicial term. I was selected for a 10-year term and then reelected at the end of that term. But a year after that was when I got the appointment to this court.

While I was on the juvenile court, Pennsylvania had a constitutional convention in which they rewrote the judicial articles in our State Constitution. They eliminated all the individual courts like the juvenile court, the county court, the orphans court, civil court, criminal court—all these were put into one Court of Common Pleas, and then made into divisions. That’s when the juvenile court became part of the Family Court of Common Pleas. If you looked over my shoulder, you wouldn’t have seen me doing anything much different than before 1968 until afterward. It was that constitutional convention that caused those big changes in the court setup.

What factor made your experience as a state court judge different from a federal judge?

It is individualized in juvenile court. Here in federal court, you really have three choices, or two choices with a criminal defendant: You can put them on probation or put them in jail. In juvenile court, there are many other avenues you can approach with kids. I liked that idea. I wish we had more flexibility with the adult system.

I used to be in the Marines. I had a good relationship with a recruiting officer, and I thought there were some cases when I thought this kid could use the discipline he would find in the Marines. I had some that would come back in their uniforms with a wife or a baby and be so proud of themselves for having succeeded in that way. I wouldn’t refer kids that I didn’t think would be a good candidate. If he was a runaway from home, and a lot were runners, I wouldn’t refer them to the Marines because I figured they might run there as well. But anyway, I thought they just needed structure that they didn’t have at home.

How have drug issues in juvenile courts changed?

When I started in juvenile court, we used to sometimes worry about kids sniffing glue; that was about the extent of the drug problem as far as the kids are concerned. Now it’s entirely different with the young kids and the adults. I’ve seen the drug problem just balloon in the years I’ve been on the court.

What was your impetus for starting the National Center for Juvenile Justice?

Well, I think, perhaps, to be more understanding. Somebody said, for every difficult human problem, there’s a solution that is simple and wrong, and that’s certainly true. That’s one reason we wanted to start the National Center for Juvenile Justice because you have one guy that says, “you’ve got to be tough on them, and you really have to crack down on these kids,” and somebody else says, “you just have to give them lots of love and they’ll understand and they’ll straighten out.” You know, you might have to go tough on one and you might have to be easy with another one, but they’re all individual problems, and to me that’s the challenge of the thing. When I went to my Senate hearing to be confirmed for this federal court job, one of the senators asked me, “What’s the answer to juvenile justice?” I said, “If I knew that, I’d probably be president.”

We still don’t know the answers, but I think as we learn more, we gain greater experience and learn to deal with these kids, we have to remember they’re each individuals and so much of it goes back to the families, which may or may not even exist.

The author also thanks the Historical Society of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania for access to Judge Cohill’s recorded interview, dated February 18, 2008.

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Judge Stephanie Domitrovich

Judge Stephanie Domitrovich has served for 25 years as an elected general jurisdiction state trial judge of the Sixth Judicial District of Pennsylvania.