A chorus of civic leaders is calling on City Council to rename the Criminal Justice Center in honor of the nation’s first female Black judge, and the state and nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice — Juanita Kidd Stout.
“There is still no public building [in Philadelphia] named after a woman, let alone a woman of color,” said Deborah Willing, a former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. “So, it is only fitting that the Criminal Justice Center … and the courtrooms in which her presence was so strongly felt be named after Justice Kidd Stout.”
Council is expected to decide whether or not to name the Filbert Street building, across the square from City Hall, the Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice on May 31. As a first step councilmembers heard testimony at a public hearing on the issue this week.
Stout, who was born and raised in Oklahoma, migrated to Philadelphia in 1950 and in 1959 she was the first Black woman elected to a U.S. court, after winning a seat in the city’s municipal court. She followed that up by being the first Black woman to be elected to the Court of Common Pleas, serving from 1969 to 1998.
During the 1960s she earned a reputation as tough judge particularly interested in juvenile delinquency and gang violence. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed her special ambassador to the United States Delegation to the Kenya Independence Celebration.
In 1987, Stout was the first African-American woman to serve on the state Supreme Court after being appointed by Gov. Robert Casey. The appointment also made her the first Black female justice on any state supreme in the land. She served from 1988 to 1989.
“She was a role model and a woman of many firsts,” said U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.
He and Willing were just two of approximately 15 people who unanimously urged Council to approve the name change in her honor.
Among them was President Judge Pamela Dembe, who, along with many others, spoke warmly of Stout, singling out her good humor, insistence on punctuality, grammar and punctuation.
“Justice Stout was a role model for many of us over years,” Dembe said. “She was a great and generous soul. She was also a teacher right to the very end, so be sure your grammar and punctuation are correct.”
District Attorney Seth Williams noted that Stout was not always appreciated in her lifetime and that the local chapter of the ACLU protested her “swift justice” tactics.
But, “to the Philadelphia legal community she was a paragon of justice,” he said.
Stout was born March 7, 1919, in Wewoka, Okla., and died on Aug. 21, 1998. She graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in music, attending university in Iowa because no Oklahoma university would accept a Black woman. Stout went on to attain her law degree from the University of Indiana. She was inducted in the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame in 1983.
Renaming the Criminal Justice Center has not been without controversy.
Among the other proposals, naming it after former Mayor Frank Rizzo; former two-term Councilman Edgar Campbell Sr., the first Black chairman of the city Democratic Party; former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former state Supreme Court Justice James McDermott.