Sarmina Described As Smart, Fair, and Ambitious
By John P. Martin
February 19, 2012
|Judge M. Teresa Sarmina has been on the bench 14 years.|
Around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina took the bench in her fifth-floor courtroom in Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center.
A week had passed since defense lawyers in the child sex-abuse and endangerment case of three priests had launched their latest legal broadside, saying an offhand comment from the judge had showed bias against the Catholic Church. They wanted her to withdraw from the case.
It was Sarmina's turn to respond. In her hands was a tautly written, six-page ruling, which she read aloud.
The attorneys, she said, had distorted her comment that anyone who didn't agree child-sex abuse had been "widespread" in the church was "living on another planet."
Sarmina said that she was repeating a question drafted by the lawyers, and that they used her response to manufacture a controversy. "I am fully aware of my duties and responsibilities under the [judicial] canons, and I am confident I have not violated them," she said.
One of the lawyers wanted to quibble about the opinion, but the judge cut him off. "I made my ruling," she said, moving on to another topic.
Sarmina, 59, has been a Philadelphia trial judge for 14 years, presiding over thousands of cases and hundreds of trials. She has sentenced at least three men to death.
None of those cases drew the spotlight like the one involving Msgr. William J. Lynn and two former parish priests whom he allegedly enabled to molest boys. As former secretary of clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Lynn is the first church official nationwide charged with covering up alleged clergy sex abuse.
Whether Sarmina, who usually hears homicide cases, sought that spotlight is unclear.
Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper, who supervises the Criminal Division, disputed courthouse talk that Sarmina had asked to be assigned the high-profile case. Woods-Skipper said that the assignment was her decision, and that she picked Sarmina.
Sarmina has declined interview requests, saying that it would be "unseemly" to talk publicly and that the case was not about her. She also has imposed a gag order on the lawyers and defendants. Jury selection begins this week, with opening statements set for March 26.
Her assignment fits the profile she has fashioned during 30 years in Philadelphia. Friends and colleagues describe her as smart, prepared, eager for a challenge, and ambitious.
Three years ago, Sarmina launched a short-lived campaign for state Supreme Court as a Democrat. She said at the time she withdrew "for the betterment of the party," but later that fall, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) backed her as a last-minute ballot addition for Superior Court. She lost that bid, which would have made her the first Hispanic candidate elected statewide.
She also has notified the state's U.S. senators that she would like to be considered for an appointment to one of the vacant federal judgeships in Pennsylvania.
Some praise her judicial acumen but note that Sarmina can be temperamental, even prickly, in her courtroom management. She has been known to publicly upbraid lawyers for being late or unprepared.
"She is widely regarded as a knowledgeable and fair judge," said Judge Benjamin Lerner, who assigns Philadelphia homicide trials. "But she's a very difficult judge - in a good way - to try cases in front of. She demands a lot of herself and she demands a lot from the lawyers who appear before her."
Defense lawyer Patricia McKinney said Sarmina was evenhanded. "I certainly never feel that I'm on home court with her," she said, "but I know I will get a fair trial."
A Mexican American, Sarmina followed a serpentine path to Philadelphia. Born in Rochester, Minn., she earned degrees at St. Mary's College, a Catholic women's college in Indiana; and a master's degree from the University of Chicago. Then she moved to Washington to work as a staffer for U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia, a Democratic congressman from the Bronx, N.Y.
In Washington, she became friends with Nelson Diaz, a White House fellow and Temple University Law School alumnus. According to Diaz, he encouraged her to consider law school.
By the time Sarmina graduated from the Georgetown University School of Law, Diaz had been named a Common Pleas Court judge in Philadelphia. He offered her a clerkship, and Sarmina accepted.
Along the way, Sarmina had married Al Raby, a prominent Chicago activist. It's unclear when the marriage ended. A Chicago Tribune story on Raby's 1988 death from a heart attack described Sarmina as his ex-wife.
By then, the young Philadelphia lawyer was focused on her career. According to Diaz, Sarmina had sought a job in the public defender's office. "One of the things that she always wanted to do was be heavily involved in trying to fight injustices," he said. "That's why she wanted to be a public defender."
She ended up on the other side of the courtroom. In 1984, Sarmina started work as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, ultimately handling major trials and narcotics probes. Five years later, she joined the state Attorney General's Office.
Becoming a judge appeared to be a goal. After two failed bids, Sarmina won a seat on the bench in 1997, receiving more votes that year than any other Common Pleas Court candidate.
She has been a homicide judge for most of her tenure. "I have developed a true ability to keep an open mind, to allow the litigants to present their case, to maintain a level playing field," she wrote in a bar association questionnaire before her 2009 campaign. "In this setting, it often takes courage to do the right thing, because there are very high stakes and great pressures that are brought to bear."
Like most judges, Sarmina has faced the occasional appeal. In 2000, a Superior Court panel reversed her decision to abruptly fine a prosecutor and defense lawyer $35 each and find them in contempt because they failed to share a transcript before a hearing and delayed the proceedings. The higher court said Sarmina had penalized the lawyers without due process and "abused her discretion."
In a dissent, Superior Court Judge Correale Stevens defended Sarmina's action. At stake, he said, was "the court's legitimate interest in administering justice through the efficient operation of the court calendar."
The appeal was a footnote to a forgettable case. But it highlighted a common struggle for judges - how to efficiently but judiciously move their caseloads - and a style that some have come to expect from Sarmina.
Lawyer Carina Laguzzi said she first heard about the judge's "tough" rules when Laguzzi was a prosecutor a decade ago. Before her first appearance in Sarmina's courtroom, Laguzzi called the judge's staff to ask the rules. She was told: Be there at 9 a.m. and be prepared.
"I'm thinking: Those are the rules?" Laguzzi said. "Those aren't rules. That is general practice."
But another veteran lawyer said he had witnessed cringe-inducing moments when Sarmina grilled attorneys. "It's nerve-racking, because her personality is so very unpredictable," said the lawyer, who asked not to be identified discussing a judge who might hear his cases.
Kenneth Trujillo, a former city solicitor and a longtime friend of Sarmina's, put it this way: "What you see is what you get. She doesn't mince words and she's very direct."
In 2009, Trujillo chaired Sarmina's campaign for the state Supreme Court. Whether she will run again for a higher office is unclear. Trujillo won't discuss it.
Diaz said, "I think she would love to be on the federal bench."
Lynn's lawyers, Thomas Bergstrom and Jeffrey Lindy, have pressed the judge in a flurry of pretrial motions, and more than once signaled their intent to appeal her decisions. "Yet another ruling that's unfair," Lindy said during a testy exchange with the judge Wednesday. "Has Msgr. Lynn won a ruling yet?"
Minutes later, Lindy apologized, the judge accepted it, and the case moved on. All sides are expected back in court Tuesday.
In 2001, Sarmina married Mark Tratenberg, a Philadelphia-area developer. Together they have traveled widely, friends say. And photos hanging in her judge's chambers speak to her other passion: riding horses.
Almost 20 years ago, Sarmina was among the founders of Boarders and Stewards of the Monastery, a nonprofit that refurbished and maintains the historic Monastery Stable in Mount Airy.
For years, Sarmina was among the few who devoted countless hours to restoring the long-neglected property, shoveling manure and maintaining the stables, said Anna Kruezberger, a cofounder.
Kruezberger said she had never heard Sarmina discuss her work. She said riding - and all that goes with it - was Sarmina's respite.
"When you go down there, she's not Judge Sarmina. When you go down to the monastery, you're just Teresa and Anna," she said.