Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer dead at 74, just months prior to retirement

The law in Pennsylvania requires all judges to retire at age 75, and Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer, at age 74, was slated to step down from the bench in just a matter of months.

Chief Justice Baer, however, suddenly passed away Friday night at his home near Pittsburgh, the Associated Press reported.

Baer, who had joined the high court in 2003 and was just elevated to the position of chief justice in 2021, will be replaced in that role by Justice Debra Todd. Meanwhile, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) may make an interim appointment to fill the court vacancy, subject to the approval of the state Senate, until voters elect a new justice to the bench in the 2023 election.

Court announces death, fellow judges offer condolences

A news release from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced Chief Justice Baer’s “sudden passing” that Justice Todd said was a “tremendous loss” for both the high court and all Pennsylvanians.

“Pennsylvania has lost a jurist who served the Court and the citizens of the Commonwealth with distinction,” Todd said in a statement. “Chief Justice Baer was an influential and intellectual jurist whose unwavering focus was on administering fair and balanced justice. He was a tireless champion for children, devoted to protecting and providing for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.”

“His distinguished service and commitment to justice and fairness spanned his decades on the bench — first as a family court judge in Allegheny County and eventually as administrative judge in family court before being elected to serve on the Supreme Court,” she added. “On behalf of the Court, we offer our deepest condolences to family, friends and colleagues of Chief Justice Baer.”

A statement was also issued by Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer on behalf of Pennsylvania’s court system with regard to the “tragic loss” of the chief justice.

“His impact on the judiciary is immeasurable and marked by his moral courage and untarnished reputation for fairness, honesty and integrity. The Chief personified all that is good about the work and the role of the courts, focusing his life’s work on meeting the needs of children and their families,” Jubelirer said. “Chief Justice Baer was a mentor to so many, who will now go forward and work to carry on his legacy. Our thoughts for peace and healing go out to his family, friends, and colleagues as they mourn his passing.”

Pittsburgh native mourned

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Chief Justice Baer, who was born and raised in the Pittsburgh area and maintained “deep ties” to the city, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and received his law degree from Duquesne University, where he was slated to be honored with a Distinguished Alumnus Award in just a couple of weeks.

Baer first served the public as a deputy attorney general in the late 1970s before spending time in private practice until he was elected to the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court in 1989, where he worked in the family division and received recognition for his reforms to the juvenile court system.

Though Baer’s slot on the Supreme Court bench was already scheduled to be on the ballot in 2023, Gov. Wolf may nominate an interim replacement until that time, but the Post-Gazette noted that with only a handful of session days left in the year, the Senate may not have time to consider a nominee, meaning it is likely that the task will fall to the next governor and Senate.

“I’m extremely saddened to learn that Chief Justice Baer passed away,” Wolf, who ordered all flags be flown at half-staff in Baer’s honor, said in a statement. “He was a respected and esteemed jurist with decades of service to our courts and our commonwealth. I am grateful for his contributions and leadership in the Supreme Court.”

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