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KDKA Investigates: Pittsburgh Judge Criticized For No-Cash Bail Policy, Other Rulings

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Usually when someone is charged with a serious crime, they have to put up cash or something else valuable to make sure they will stay out of trouble and show up for court, but one local judge has a different idea.

Endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, Mik Pappas ran for District Justice as a "progressive peacemaker," aiming to make the court system fairer for minorities and the poor.

"As District Justice, I will work to end mass incarceration, to disrupt the school to prison pipeline, and to prevent evictions," he said in a campaign ad.

After a stunning victory, Pappas has become a lightning rod -- accused of legislating his political philosophy from the bench.

KDKA's Andy Sheehan: "Your critics would say that you're an advocacy judge, and that your actions are making the community less safe."
Pappas: "I would respectfully disagree. I don't know of any instance where that's the case."

Pappas said he could not talk about specific cases, but in the past three weeks, his rulings have made defendants happy while angering landlords, prosecutors and police.

Refusing to grant evictions, balking at signing arrest and search warrants, and steadfastly refusing to set cash bail for crime suspects -- he doesn't believe in it.

He even tweeted, "In the past two weeks, I've set bail in over a dozen cases. Not once have I imposed cash bail. Not once has this resulted in chaos, collision or calamity #endcashbail"

Sheehan: "Some people say, 'Oh, he's letting people go, and his courtroom has become a revolving door.'"
Pappas: "No, no, no, no. That's not accurate."

Pappas believes cash bail unfairly penalizes the poor because they can't post it, but rich people can.

"To require someone who is, at that point, innocent to give the one thing we know they don't have, which is money, as a condition of their release pending the outcome of their trial is going to come across as unfair to the defendant," Pappas said.

He takes a similar stance on refusing to sign some arrest and search warrants, even though police privately grouse that he's hindering their investigations. Pappas counters that he's not a rubber stamp, but a "bulwark" in protecting the rights of suspects.

"Being that bulwark is the most essential function of a magistrate sitting there reviewing those warrants, and you're reviewing warrants, you're not just approving them. That's not the role. You review them to determine if probable cause is met," Pappas said.

While these issues have simmered under the surface, others have boiled over in City Court where Pappas has been accused of overreach -- like trying to hold veteran defense attorney James DePasquale in contempt of court even though magistrates don't have the power to do that.

"I've never, ever had or heard of a magistrate trying to invoke contempt powers whenever they don't have them, number one, and number two, I clearly was not in contempt in any event," DePasquale said.

DePasquale is representing Mahmut Yilmaz, who is accused of assaulting patron Jade Martin at Pizza Milano in Uptown. DePasquale claims Pappas refused to let him cross-examine Martin because Pappas had already taken sides against his client.

"He's a young guy, and he's a socialist," DePasquale said. "I assume he thinks it was outrageous that the situation transpired as it transpired."

Sheehan: "Your critics say you are not an unbiased, neutral arbitrator, but that you're an advocacy judge with a philosophy of social justice."
Pappas: "My response is that it takes some time to get to know me. I know we're fresh off a campaign, but I'm very confident that what folks will see is a judge making thoughtful, considered decisions from the position of a neutral arbitrator."

While Pappas concedes there's a learning curve to this job, he has no plans of conceding his principles.

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