By Pete Kennedy
In the early 1980s, Maria McLaughlin joined the cheerleading team at West Catholic High School in Philadelphia. She couldn’t have known at the time that she was taking a step toward becoming a judge on Pennsylvania’s Superior Court.
“If it weren’t for a partial Penn State cheerleading scholarship, I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to college,” said McLaughlin, whose grandfather emigrated from Italy with a sixth-grade education.
“That was a really big deal in my family.”
Judge McLaughlin, 52, studied public policy at Penn State, went on to earn her juris doctorate at Delaware Law School of Widener University, and in 1992 joined the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office under Lynne Abraham.
“I loved public service. I loved litigating,” McLaughlin said. “I was young, I was single, and I had nothing but time to give.”
In 2002, she was promoted to lead the family law division, becoming one of the youngest female chiefs ever in the office.
After 19 years as a prosecutor, she resigned from the DA’s office in 2011 in accordance with city regulations to become a Democratic candidate for Judge of Philadelphia Court
of Common Pleas.
“It was one of the scariest times of my life. I was a single mom,” McLaughlin said. “In March, I resigned. And I was elected in May.”
Her two teenage sons were fully on board with her plan. During the campaign, her younger son began cooking some family meals, stoking a passion that eventually led him
to work as a chef in a castle in Puglia, Italy.
McLaughlin built up a sterling judicial record — none of her decisions have been overturned on appeal — and ran for higher office in 2017, winning a 10-year term on Superior Court.
She is one of 15 Superior Court judges
who travel mainly between Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, hearing criminal, civil and family cases in three-judge panels.
While the state Supreme Court is the highest court in Pennsylvania, most appeals don’t make it that far, leaving Superior Court as the final arbiter of many legal disputes. The volume of cases is impressive — Superior Court decides about 8,000 appeals per year. On a recent trip to Pittsburgh, McLaughlin and two fellow judges heard 47 cases in three days.
Typically, the trio of jurists will confer on the cases they heard, then each judge writes opinions for a third of the cases, with assistance from their law clerks. All three judges’ names are attached to the opinions when they’re made public.
“I never forget, when I’m signing my name, the family I’m affecting behind that signature. It’s never just one person,” McLaughlin said. “Whether it’s somebody who’s incarcerated, somebody who lost somebody to horrific malpractice, a wills and trusts case, or a contentious divorce … with that signature, you’re affecting a family’s life.”
Family is also the focal point of McLaughlin’s life outside the courtroom.
She has an Irish surname — which is her maiden name — and converted to Judaism as an adult, but McLaughlin said she grew up in “a typical Italian household.” On Sundays, her family went to her Italian grandmother’s house for dinner. Even as a girl, she questioned why, after dinner, the women cleaned, while the men sat.
“I said, ‘If my brother doesn’t help, I’m not doing it,’” she said. “‘My mom said, ‘I knew
you were going to be a lawyer, because you always questioned everything.’”
Her brother remains one of her best friends.
“In our adult lives, he’s never had an unkind word,” she said.
McLaughlin lives in Center City with her husband, former Philadelphia city controller Jonathan Saidel. They chose their building because her mother — who was widowed at 55 and is currently surpassing doctors’ expectations as she battles cancer — lives
“People ask me, ‘Where do you get the energy? Where do you get the grit?’ I never had to look much farther than my own home,” McLaughlin said.
Many mornings, before she even gets out of bed, she’ll exchange text messages or video chat with one of her sons abroad: Julian, 22, the chef whose move to Italy prompted her whole family to apply for dual citizenship; and Dante, 23, a Peace Corps member working
to improve infant nutrition in Zambia.
She has a four-block walk to her office, with an occasional stop to pick up doughnuts for her staff to enjoy as they preview the day’s docket. Walking the streets of the city she loves is one of McLaughlin’s great joys.
She is active with Italian cultural organizations like the Justinian Law Society, the Sons of Italy and the Cavalieri Society, whom she said helped her in her runs for office.
“I’m blessed to have had the career that
I’ve had,” she said. “I wouldn’t have had it without my Italian roots.”
Asked about her future, the judge is necessarily vague.
“As a judge, you’re not allowed to say whether or not you plan on doing something else,” McLaughlin said. “But I am always open to the next level. Let’s put it that way.” IAH