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Jacobin - December 20, 2019

Mik Pappas is a Pittsburgh district judge — and a socialist. He was interviewed by photojournalist Scott Heins at an elected officials’ gathering at the Democratic Socialists of America’s biennial convention in Atlanta this summer about what it means to be a socialist when sitting on the bench as a judge.

Heins interviewed and photographed over twenty socialist elected officials from around the country who were gathered in Atlanta. Jacobin will be posting them in the weeks to come.

SH: What’s an issue that’s been relevant to your campaign and your time in office that you see as allowing you to do democratic socialism, compared to others?

MP: My campaign focused heavily on mass incarceration and decarceration as really spearhead issues. That’s not something you see in a standard Democratic candidate campaign. But I actually ran as an independent.

As a district judge, we preside over arraignments, and we preside over preliminary hearings, the first two hearings in a criminal case. We have authority to approve search warrants, approve arrest warrants. We really are the gatekeepers of the criminal justice system, and that gave us an opportunity to talk a lot about all the issues related to mass incarceration, and then even to relate those such as homelessness, addiction, mental health disorders, and Medicare for All. Talking about alternatives to incarceration for problems that really aren’t solved by incarceration, but are rather solved by good medical care.

Another important issue that really drove our campaign, and continues to, is affordable housing. As district judges, we preside over landlord-tenant cases. We’re the court of first instance for landlord-tenant cases. In my district alone last year, we had 385 of these cases filed. So affordable housing, in my first year in office, the eviction rate went down by 40 percent, which is a significant amount. And then opening up how that profound impact then captures people’s attention and opens up a larger conversation about universal housing vouchers. Ideas that were advanced by Matthew Desmond in Evicted and are very real possibilities if there is, one, precedent showing that they’re real, and two, political will to put them into the legislature and reframe our discussion around housing.

SH: Why do you think socialists can make good judges?

MP: Number one, the model of a mass organization and the model of a mass movement, I think, is ideal for ensuring that we elect independent judges. When you have a mass movement in support of a judicial candidate, that judicial candidate then can rely on people power to both finance and be boots on the ground in their campaign, rather than power that comes from concentrated wealth. That has empowered me to be independent in my decisions and really just look at the facts and the law and do what’s fair in a case.

SH: You can imagine the election of a socialist judge causing a kind of panic in right-wing media outlets. What would you say to someone who might be taken aback or afraid of a socialist as a judge?

MP: When people think about a judge, they think about public safety. I think that everybody can agree that a judge in the position of presiding over a criminal case has a responsibility to protect the public. However, in the vast majority of criminal cases, a serious risk to public safety is not present. Most criminal defendants are there because of poverty, because of addiction, homelessness, mental health disorders. That is the vast majority, well above 70 percent of cases that come through the courts.

A socialist judge, I believe, is actually beneficial to that process because a socialist judge will approach it from a perspective of intersectionality and say, “I recognize that these are the root causes of problems before me. What are the non-carceral solutions, the less harmful solutions to these problems?” And I think that, in the end, will have a much greater benefit for public safety than incarcerating people who shouldn’t be.

The thing about being a judge is that a judge’s role is to be objective in analyzing facts, and then apply those facts to the law, what the law may be. Now, a judge has discretion in determining which facts are credible facts that should be given some credence and how the law should be interpreted, but then those decisions are subject to review as well. I’d be much more concerned, if I were an average-Joe voter, about not having diversity at the bench. It’s important for the public to believe and perceive the judicial process is fair and impartial, to have confidence in the judiciary. When you don’t have a diverse bench or diverse viewpoints on the bench, I think that is actually problematic in the eyes of the public.

SH: A judge’s job is to administer and preserve justice, and you hear that word in socialist discussions a lot. Racial justice, climate justice, housing justice, economic justice. Does socialism’s engagement with ideas of justice factor into your work?

MP: I think it’s extremely important for the DSA and its members to be talking about the role of the justice system in everyday people’s lives. The justice system, especially in the lives of poor and working folks, is very present. I think that it’s really important to talk about the role that capital plays in the justice system, oftentimes a corrosive and really corrupting influence — the cash bail industry, for-profit prisons, tech industries’ surveillance and policing, all pushing back against the notion that a lot of these problems can be solved through more of a social work model. More of an understanding and empathetic view toward the folks who are accused of committing crimes. Or are impoverished and resort to theft. Are depressed and resort to drug use. So I think it’s extremely important for the DSA and its members to really focus on the justice system and think about how we can make an impact within the judiciary.

When I ran, a lot of folks were saying, “District judge, there’s twelve of you in the city, forty-six of you in the county, you really don’t get to make an impact. You really should just run for legislature. Don’t run for district judge, there’s not an opportunity to make change there.”

Those same folks who were saying, “You can’t make an impact as a district judge,” once I was in office, immediately were up in arms over the impact I was making. They felt the impact immediately. That’s the trick that the political establishment wants to play: “Don’t do this now, do something else later because you can have more impact.” But once you get in there, they realize things can work differently and better.

Socialism in America is growing because people are ready for change that benefits the majority, not just the few. And they see socialism as a genuine, real response to that demand.

DSA-endorsed candidates are talking about the issues that matter to people. They’re really focusing on issues that resonate with people across geographic and socioeconomic landscapes. My district is extremely diverse: we have affluent neighborhoods, we have neighborhoods of primarily people of color, low-income neighborhoods, working civil-servant neighborhoods. But when I’m knocking on doors, I can relate to everybody about addiction and how it’s impacted their lives directly. DSA-endorsed candidates are talking about issues that relate to everybody and bring people together.