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POWERBOOK 2012: The exceptional debater

Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter described as an analytical consensus builder who wants a challenge

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Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, in her Montgomery County chambers’ library, is a judge in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Her law career spans five decades and includes trial and appellate work as a prosecutor and as a private practice lawyer. Leadbetter is playing a pivotal role in the management of Harrisburg’s debt crisis and recovery plan. Photo/Amy Spangler
Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, in her Montgomery County chambers’ library, is a judge in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Her law career spans five decades and includes trial and appellate work as a prosecutor and as a private practice lawyer. Leadbetter is playing a pivotal role in the management of Harrisburg’s debt crisis and recovery plan. Photo/Amy Spangler

Like many little girls in the world, Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter grew up with a penchant for the stage.

But the allure of the spotlight wasn't about becoming a famous movie star or singer.

For Leadbetter, who was born and raised in Texas during an era of great change, early interest in government and history led her to the debate team.

"It was an interesting time," she said of attending high school in the 1960s, a period of activist governing that saw the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the creation of Medicare. "There was a heightened interest in changing the world."

And she wanted to be part of that change.

"To some extent, the allure of being a trial lawyer was the same kind of performing venue," she said.

She studied political science and headed off to the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, where she edited the law review.

At the time, Leadbetter was one of only six women in her law class.

"I think tackling a profession that had been traditionally occupied by men certainly must have had something of a challenge about it that I found appealing," the 65-year-old Commonwealth Court judge said.

Her days on the debate team — studying topics that enriched her interest in civics issues — helped guide her path and desire to solve problems.

Leadbetter has been no stranger to challenges in a law career that has spanned five decades and included trial and appellate work as a prosecutor and as a private practice lawyer.

Her biggest current challenge is the case involving Harrisburg's fiscal receivership, which came into play last year when city officials failed to adopt a recovery plan under the state's Act 47 distressed municipalities program.

The lack of cooperation led to changes in the law and eventually a court-appointed overseer.

Judge James Kelley had the case before retiring at the end of 2011. Leadbetter got the nod and quickly became the most powerful person in the capital city.

When elements of the receiver's recovery plan, which she approved, are not followed and officials are at an impasse, she is tasked with sorting it out.

Leadbetter also has final say over the big-ticket items, including the monetization of Harrisburg's assets. Receiver William Lynch is required to get her approval before deals are signed.

"It's so visible, and the stakes are so high," Leadbetter said about the case. "You worry about making the right decisions."

Those who know the former president judge said they have no doubts about her ability to make the tough calls and do what is right.

"In terms of her leadership style, she is someone who is extremely attuned to other people and what their concerns are," said Kristen Brown, the Commonwealth Court's prothonotary. "(But,) when it comes time, she has no trouble making a decision. She doesn't hesitate."

S. David Fineman, a former law partner in Philadelphia, said Leadbetter won't be influenced by politics or personal relationships.

The difference between good and bad lawyers is the ability to crystallize issues, he said.

"She always had that ability," Fineman said.

Leadbetter started out as an assistant district attorney for Philadelphia County, while Fineman worked in the public defender's office. The two also were adversaries when she worked for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"She was extremely well respected by any adversary," Fineman said. "She was extremely fair and understood her relationship as an adversary."

He also called her a "calming influence" and a great mentor to young appellate lawyers.

She is the same person off the bench, Brown said, calling Leadbetter a gracious and bright person with excellent social skills.

The judge, who enjoys the research and problem solving that comes with the job, said the analytical process is what makes it fun. And the opinions she hands down, which provide the framework for future cases, make it rewarding, she said.

"If people don't have faith that (the judiciary process) will work and that it does work, then it undermines stability," she said. "It's very important to our system that there is a sense of stability."

Leadbetter said she has tried to emulate her role models, including Judge Edward Becker, the former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

"He loved the law and was determined to do what was right," she said.

It's important that leaders surround themselves with smart and honest people who let them know when they are on the wrong track, she added. That's been her approach.

"Every judge is very powerful, because every day we make decisions that affect people's lives," Leadbetter said about her own influence. "It's what we're doing and the job we have that's important.

"It should be a humbling influence on us to think about the kind of power we have, because of what it means to other people, rather than what it means to us."

About Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter

Age: 65

Education: Bachelor’s in political science from Rice University, 1968; law degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, 1971

Family: Married to Gary Leadbetter; two daughters and three grandchildren

Hometown: Houston, Texas

Current residence: Blue Bell, Montgomery County

First job: Assistant district attorney for Philadelphia County, 1971

Current job: Commonwealth Court judge. Leadbetter was appointed to the court in 1996 by Gov. Tom Ridge. She was elected in 1997 and retained in 2007.

Last book read: “Death Comes to Pemberley” by P.D. James and “When Everything Changed” by Gail Collins.

Guiding philosophy: “Nobody can set your priorities but you. You have to know what they are and stick to them. You can’t do absolutely everything, but you can do a lot if you know what’s important.”

Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jasons@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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