As of Sept. 22, the U.S. Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania became distinct among the country’s 94 federal trial courts. Effective that day, Judge Gary L. Lancaster, the only African-American on the federal district bench, was elevated to chief judge for the district.

As a result, African-Americans now hold three of the top leadership positions in the district federal criminal justice system. Lancaster joins Chief Federal Defender Lisa Freeland and Chief Probation and Pre-Trial Services Officer Theodore W. Johnson in the district’s top spots.


Johnson, who himself was honored this year with the Director’s Award for his stewardship over the combined probation and pre-trial office, said Lancaster’s promotion is big news.

“That’s huge,” said Johnson. “He’s a great judge, and deserving. We’re all pretty excited about that.”

The Western District of Pennsylvania Court has jurisdiction from Erie to West Virginia and from Bedford to parts of Ohio.

Chief Federal Defender Lisa Freeland

“Well, be careful what you pray for,” Lancaster joked. “It’s really an administrative position. So I’ll be resolving employment issues, making hiring decisions, determining the agenda for judicial meetings, overseeing the budget and representing the court at civic and bar association functions. It doesn’t reduce my caseload any, but I do get an extra law clerk.”

The appointment as chief judge lasts for a term of seven years. Though his appointment was based on seniority, Lancaster agreed that joining Freeland and Johnson in their respective top spots gives the court a little more diversity. More diversity could be forthcoming with President Obama making judicial selections.

“Well, he’s made some important appointments of African-Americans already to the Third Circuit and Fourth Circuit Courts of Appeals. Those are very prestigious positions,” he said. “He has shown a commitment to diversity and I’m impressed with his appointments including Chief Justice Sotomayor.

Chief Probation and Pre-Trial Officer Theodore W. Johnson

“We do have a vacancy now, only nine of the Western District’s 10 seats are filled. And we’ll have another one in November, 2010, when Judge (Donetta) Ambrose retires or takes senior status. Either way that creates a vacancy, so, we’ll see.”

Ambrose and Lancaster will be recognized for their achievements at an Oct. 22 ceremony at the federal courthouse sponsored by the American Bar Association.

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